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13 February 2023

Another Way of Looking: Talking to Inua Ellams

In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education, Angelique Golding talks with poet and playwright Inua Ellams on adapting Chekhov's Three Sisters for the National Theatre and in the context of the Biafran War, his Hausa heritage, the curriculum and his ‘cultural touchstones’, and more. You can read the full excerpt in Wasafiri 112, now available to download or purchase online.
Born in Nigeria, Inua Ellams is a poet, playwright and performer, graphic artist, and designer. He is a Complete Works poet alumnus and facilitates workshops in creative writing where he explores reoccurring themes from his work – identity, displacement, and destiny – in accessible, enjoyable ways for participants of all ages and backgrounds. His awards include the Edinburgh Fringe First Award 2009, the Liberty Human Rights Award, the Live Canon International Poetry Prize, the Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition, Magma Poetry Competition, Winchester Poetry Prize, a Black British Theatre Award, and the Hay Festival Medal for Poetry. He has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Tate Modern, Louis Vuitton, and BBC Radio and Television. His poetry books include Candy Coated Unicorn and Converse All Stars (Flipped Eye),The Wire-Headed Heathen (Akashic Books), The Half God of Rainfall (4th Estate), and The Actual (Penned in the Margins). His plays include Black T-shirt Collection, The 14th Tale, Barber Shop Chronicles, and Three Sisters published by Oberon. Interviewed in the summer of 2021, he reveals his personal and historic inspirations for adapting Anton Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters.

Angelique Golding: I am aware that when you were approached to adapt Chekhov’s Three Sisters part of the appeal to you was that you have three sisters. Would you say that your sisters’, or your own, personalities and quirks found themselves in the brother and sisters in the play?

Inua Ellams: Yes, pretty much; that’s how I was able to adapt it. I based it on my family. The middle brother is sort of a jack-of-all trades and there isn’t anything he masters. He is this aloof, finickity character and creature and that’s what I’ve always been in my family. The middle sister was going through marital problems, which echoes what my sister was going through at the time. My youngest sister struggled with questions of identity. When she left Nigeria, she was quite young, about seven or so, before her Nigerian identity was properly solidified. We came to the UK in 1996, moved to Ireland for three years, and then returned — so a lot of the existential angst that the youngest sister in the play goes through is what my younger sister also went through. And finally, the oldest sister in the play, Lolo, is based on my older sister, Fatima, who had the greatest responsibility over us as children which is typical in African households. Lolo’s responsibilities are more heightened because she’s the overqualified educator and the most politically astute person in the play, who is forced to make difficult decisions and to think deeply about belonging to Nigeria, Biafra, and the family — these ties that bind her.

That makes for an interesting dynamic, then, considering that there was a fracture to come in the family. In terms of the writing of the play: although it is an adaptation, at a Southbank event in February 2020 the play's Director, Nadia Fall, said that you made this your own work. Was that easy to do, or did you feel the weight of Chekhov’s presence? And if you did, was that a hindrance, or help?

I read the play intensely, over and over again. I read various drafts and versions of the play: one set in Northern Ireland, another in the Caribbean. I also read various synopses of the play. Seeing other writers just do whatever the hell they wanted, with the same narrative structures and dynamics, gave me confidence to adapt mine as I saw fit. I don’t think I felt belaboured by Chekhov. Some critics wish that I had strayed even further from the original play, but I didn’t want to because I understood what Chekhov was doing and how it fitted within the Biafran context. Straying completely, doing very wildly different things, would have been the far easier choice, but I don’t really take the easy road out of things. It was a literary challenge — to try and stick to the original yet do whatever the hell I want within that structure. I spent a year or so before working on the play working on a book of poems called After Hours, where I did the exact same thing: I read texts written by other poets, deconstructed them and then wrote my own versions. For instance, I looked at the way a poem set on a farm in Scotland was constructed, outlining the nuts and bolts of the poem, before adapting and setting it within my own background and childhood. That process was training ground for adapting Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

At the Southbank event you have made reference to your Hausa heritage. How does that impact your storytelling?

My Hausa heritage definitely comes out in my attempts to write poetry, and the play grew from that. I was speaking with a playwright in Nigeria who thinks that the Igbo cultural space – headspace – is geared towards ‘prose’, the Yoruba cultural headspace is geared towards ‘drama’, and the Hausa cultural headspace is geared towards ‘poetry’. When you consider that the premier dramatist hailing from Nigeria – Wole Soyinka is Yoruba – something rings true. You think about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe – the Father of African Literature – both being of Igbo heritage. Many aspects of the Hausa cultural headspace came from the Arabic and Islamic cultures that colonised the northern regions: so much about structure and the beauty of language and voice – all required for creating poetry, and all instilled in Quranic schools across the Hausaland – traditions of looking at a text, filtering and translating. But there can also be re-translating, which gives rise to forces as horrible as Boko Haram, who take texts and adapt them to their own wishes rather than filter it towards humane and humanist truth.

This informs my approach towards texts, towards beautifying, simplifying, and boiling things down. I think I geared all those motivations into writing the Chekhov adaptation and that’s why, even more than my previous play Barber Shop Chronicles, I think of it more as a poem that is protracted and stretched out across the drama. I also quote from Christopher Okigbo, the Igbo poet who died during the war. He becomes like a talisman, a translator, an avatar.

These cultural references in your writing, particularly your poetry, have been referred to as ‘cultural touchstones’. As I understand it, through these touchstones you want to enable the reader to have better access to a poem’s content. In doing that you are choosing or hoping to include rather than exclude your audience. Given the play’s Nigerian setting, and the centrality of the Biafran civil war, did you worry about how that might be received at the National Theatre, and also by the white members of the audience in particular?

I didn't so much because I did a lot of research, spoke to a lot of people, and wrote the play so that it explained its context. There are parts of the play that perhaps were too didactic, but they were necessarily so, so people who did not know anything of the war would be in the stream of its path and would be swept along with it. To make the feeling more secure, I added touchstones. I made references to things like Blue Peter, ‘The Beatles’, John Lennon when he returned his MBE. I tried to add aspects of British history and culture to the play because the Biafran war is part of British history. I don’t think it is taught in Nigeria yet, in Nigerian history. I don’t think it is taught in universities. When I was in secondary school in Nigeria, it wasn’t taught to us.

The touchstones were written to enable a British audience, to give them footholds to understand things that were happening, and to pair them with their own histories. Nadia [Fall], however, encouraged me to remove some of the references so it didn’t feel as if I was paying too much service to them. I could have gone much further, but she believed a lot of the dynamics already established in the play were relatable enough — and I shouldn’t go beyond the call of duty...

While completing a Master’s in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths University, Angelique Golding won a studentship to undertake a Doctoral Award at Queen Mary University of London in collaboration with Wasafiri Magazine and the British Library. Her research, completing in 2024, draws on methodologies from postcolonial and global literary studies combined with book and magazine history. Edited by Darren ChettyAngelique Golding, and Nicola RollockWasafiri 112: Reimagining Education considers what education means within and beyond the classroom, investigating government intervention and the reclamation and exploration of decolonisation, and addressing the forces of change and continuity in Britain today. Featuring interviews with Inua Ellams, Gary Younge, and Steve Garner; fiction from Durre Shawar and Jade E Bradford; poetry from Salena Godden; life writing from Diane Leedham, and much more, this is an issue not to be missed. Inua Ellams Photo Credit: Penned in the Margins.      
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