Aspiring playwrights must never give up on the country or their art — Chris Anyokwu Ph.D

Chris Anyokwu Ph.D was recently longlisted in the Nigeria Prize for Literature for his play, “The Blood Lines”. In this interview with thelagosreview, the professor of English Language at the University of Lagos  discusses the inspiration behind the play’s storyline and the themes it explores, as well as the challenges he faced while writing it. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind your play’s storyline and the themes it explores?

I guess the subject chose me rather than the other way round. We know the subject of migration has been with us from creation but over the last few years, it has dominated global discourse, particularly with the pauperised and disinherited mass of the denizens of the so-called Global South being progressively disembodied by the reprobate regimes that hold Africa at its jugular.  Does any day pass without the media reporting heartwrenching tragic capsizing of rickety boats on the Mediterranean sea with flotsam from Africa trying to flee the asphyxiating home for salubrious exile?

What message do you hope to convey through your play?

The message of the play? Isn’t it obvious from my answer to question one? Perhaps it bears reiterating that “The Boat People” thematises the heartbreaking issue of the trans-Saharan as well as the Trans-Atlantic mass migration of African detritus to supposedly better climes in western Europe and North America. 

Again, home is radically reconceptualised to signify not simply natal provenance or country of origin but a place of relative comfort and security, even exile. Man is perpetually searching for a home, more so in our post-human, post-apocalyptic epoch defined by contrary crosswinds of flux, indeterminacy, instability, insecurity, and other pathologies. 

The play tries to prick the conscience of unconscionable power to rethink, reconsider the plight of the ruled and deliberately put in place observable measures and socio-economic programmes and people-oriented policies to ameliorate the horrendous sufferings of the people.

How did you research the subject matter of mass migration from African countries to western Europe and North America?

I didn’t need to do too much research to write the play. There’s a sense, again, in which the play writes itself through me: I merely refracted objective reality from which everybody was and is still trying to flee, namely: an insuperable dystopia both on a national and continental scale. But speaking more seriously, I read and studied many books, plays, novels, watched documentaries, TV programmes, especially cable TV showing hellish images of our brothers and sisters, whose remains were being dredged up from the turbulent womb of the Mediterranean sea and taken away to be interred in body bags in unmarked graves, without giving them final burial rites and achieving closure. 

It’s abominable that as we speak the same thing is happening on the Mediterranean mainly and the Atlantic ocean to a degree.

What challenges did you face while writing this play?

The same challenges most postcolonial African writers face, namely: paucity of material, inhospitable social environment, material poverty, hunger, unresponsive literary environment, apathetic reading/theatre-going audiences, hostile anti-intellectualism, among others.

How does your experience as a professor of English at the University of Lagos influence your writing?

Being a professor at university helps in that, before you earn the position, the rigorous discipline of the system would have purged you of behaviour patterns that are inimical to the spirit of excellence. The university environment or your job portfolios equip you with the requisite moral, psychological, and academic and intellectual nous and wherewithal to function as the moral compass of society. The reading, the research, the mentorship and administrative aspects of the job also helps you understand the human subject a bit more thoroughly. Knowing that society reposes so much confidence and hope in you as a public intellectual and teacher, you try to live up to the high standards of your exalted office as professor.

What is your opinion on the current state of African literature?

On the current state of African Literature, I’d say it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the situation here in Nigeria isn’t much to thump one’s chest about. On the other hand, we should be grateful for our kinsfolk in Diaspora on whose collective shoulders rest the production and criticism of contemporary African Literature. I don’t want to name names but we all know that most novels, plays and poetry, and their critical reception take place mostly offshore. Given the near-total absence of resources, financial and others, with which the writer here deals, there’s so much s/he can do, really. In spite of this anomalous situation, Nigeria-based writers still manage to put pen to paper in the most inclement environment. But hope springs eternal!

What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?

Aspiring playwrights must never give up on the country or their art. Without the cross, can you talk of the crown; without lemon, how do you make lemonade? Art thrives in chaos, being superintended by anomie. Satiation is a death-knell to creativity.

How different is “The Boat People”

 from “Blood Lines” or your other plays?

“The Boat People” is a totally different play as explained above. My other plays are preoccupied with other things, other subjects.

Every year the Literary Criticism component of the Nigeria Prize for Literature fails to get plenty of entries from the academic community to which you belong. Why do you think this is the case and how can that change?

I wish I knew.

How, in your opinion, has the Nigeria Prize for Literature impacted writing in the country?

Greatly. The impact is there for all to see with the ferment, the creative effervescence in the art community.

Would you be kind enough to reveal what you would do with the $100,000 prize money, should you win?

Should I win the NLNG Prize, I hope to give God His due (tithes), my publisher will, of course, get his cut, family and friends theirs, and I will invest the remainder.

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