Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Maps and Literature

By Temitayo Olofinlua
March 30, 2009 04:54PMT

Curiosity kills only the ‘cat' of ignorance, I finally mumbled to myself as I thought about the theme of PAGES for the month of March: The World is Flat. So, I decided to wear my cap of curiosity in search for knowledge.

I sweated in the bus on my way to Yaba under the hot Lagos sun even as questions filtered through my mind: how can they say the world is flat? Was it ever really flat? Has it stopped being spherical as I was taught in my Geography class? What is the meeting point between Onyeka Nwelue's The Abyssinian Boy and the shape of the world?

PAGES, a monthly event organised by Kowry Kreations Media (KKM) in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, usually revolves around a particular theme but brings together various art forms in a bid to understand our world better.

Last month, I confronted graphic images exploring female sexuality (Lucy Azubuike's ‘Menstruation Series' and Zanele Munoli's photo studies of black lesbians) and there was a discussion of Jude Dibia's Walking with Shadows.

Thus, I had an expectation of something "shocking," and was quite caught off guard when I entered the venue but only saw THE WORLD IS FLAT painted in bright colours on the wall, with various maps of different places on flat tables.

Then, I knew that art should not be predictable in whatever form it comes to you: literature, painting, cartography, drama, photography. It should be able to not only shock you, but crawl into your skin, sometimes bringing knowledge or pleasure and at other times, something you can't describe.

The Exhibition: Understanding the World through Cartography

We were less than 30 in the audience and there were five discussants on the table: Johanne Logstrup, the curator of the exhibition and one of the artists whose work was exhibited; and Bisi Silva, the artistic director at the CCA; Onyeka Nwelue, author of The Abyssinian Boy; and Deji Toye, a literary critic and writer.

Bisi Silva helped us across our rivers of ignorance with her introduction, and paved the way for Logstrup to talk more deeply about the theme.

I listened, rather patiently as I tried to enter the world of maps, subjectivity, cartography, the interpretation of maps and the way artists (and people) come to maps. Maps are supposed to be factual, accurate and objective when it comes to description and showing places, however, an artist confronts a map subjectively.

‘The World is Flat' is aimed at seeing the world, not only through maps but through the eyes of the artist in a different way. Okay. Let me break it down from what I understood: if you tell 10 cartographers to draw maps of Lagos, you will get 10 different maps.

Not that they'd differ in size or location, but the way they'd approach the subject of "Lagos" would be different, resulting in different interpretations of Lagos on their maps. Consequently, in the individual maps, we will find different questions answered: geographical, historical, political, cultural and creative.

Logstrup took questions from the audience ranging from her choice of the theme to the aim of the whole project.

From her brilliant responses, I was able to see that, just as maps should not be seen as only geographical tools, we should begin to ask questions about our world in order to see it anew, not just "a one-way-traffic" of seeing without taking on board the possibility of other realities.

The Reading: Maps in the World of Fiction

Where does reality end and fiction begin in a work of literature? When does the writer cross over from the world of real landscapes into fiction? How true is the statement: work with what you know as a writer? When does New Delhi get too real or unreal in Onyeka Nwelue's portrayal of the city in his novel, The Abyssinian Boy?

How real is the Rajagopalan House where most of the events unfold? These were some of the questions Deji Toye raised by way of introduction to the author, Onyeka Nwelue, who in a way bridges the gap between literature and the world of cartography.

Nwelue said later that he tries to stay true to his description of the places that the novel takes the reader to: New Delhi, Lagos and Ezeoke, his village. He travelled to India and walked the streets of New Delhi. He, however, felt that in his bid to make New Delhi real, he made it "too small."

However, those who have been to New Delhi, agree that the descriptions are true and they could recognise many places. The author read from page 11 of his novel with a focus on the "cultural mappings" that we make around ourselves.

An Indian couple want to get a visa to honeymoon in US but are not allowed for reasons best known to the American Consul; the lovebirds commit suicide because they are indebted to the tune of over two million rupees. This leads to a protest and the closure of the British and American embassies for two weeks.

Just like maps, "visas" are tools that we use to define our territory and maintain our control over it and other people.

Questions now arise as to whether it is possible for a writer to describe perfectly a place that he/she has "no knowledge" of.

True or false? My answer: false. Whether a place exists in reality (as in Sefi Atta's Swallow or Joy Isi Bewaji's description of Lagos in Eko Dialogue), or is a mixture of the real and the ideal (as inverted Nigerian history in Eghosa Imasuen's To Saint Patrick) or does not exist at all (see in JK Rowling's novels or Ben Okri's world of the abiku in The Famished Road)--the place truly exists vividly in one place: the writer's head.

Reality transcends what it seems; and most times, in a work of literature, reality does not necessarily have to exist in "real life." However, unreal a place may be, verisimilitude allows the writer to make an ideal setting so real it's believable.

Just as the subjectivity of the cartographer brings a new interpretation to a map, literature breaks boundaries that have been created by maps, and takes the reader on flights to places: known or unknown, real or ideal, to meet characters, real or fictive.

The writer as a map-maker

The next round of questions showed that the writer is, amongst other things, a map-maker whether he stays true to describing reality as it is, mixes it with fiction, or goes into the realm of fantasy. S/he creates new worlds, new streets (and new characters) that are believable.

Walking around to take a look at the works in the exhibition, I entered Shahram Entekhabi's world of ‘parasite architecture' and had a brief history lesson about the Tuileries Garden (with an antique marble statue of a wild boar in it), Paris, which set me thinking.

Over time, the significance of the garden has changed: from a site of great slaughter, the extension of a royal palace and a royal prison, a gathering spot for evil spirits, hangout for homosexuals, to a resort centre, playground, and who knows what it can be tomorrow? The boar has been moved to the Louvre Museum since 1992.

Since places change, the writer (and cartographer) stays true to not only description of place but the mood and timing, amongst other things. For instance, we encounter Lagos at different times in Cyprian Ekwensi's Jagua Nana and Toni Kan's more contemporary Nights of the Creaking Bed.

Thus as map-makers, writers are also historians because each setting has a story: personal, social or political. They preserve moments through their stories whether real or ideal.

The debate is an ongoing one, however, the writer is many things and the creative process of writing is one that is very difficult to dissect.

Just as the uniqueness of each map-maker and map-reader contribute to the map, the individuality of each writer and reader brings a lot of subjectivity to our interpretation of fiction and the world around us.

PAGES has shown through this exhibition, "The World is Flat," that there are many ways of, not only looking at maps or fiction, but the world around us, and promises more interesting ways of understanding our world from many sides of this coin called art. To this end, my ignorance is dead because now I know.

Olofinlua is a writer and editor based in Lagos.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

P.A.G.E.S series 2

Presented at P.A.G.E.S
by Onyeka Nwelue

Onyeka Nwelue is the author of The Abyssinian Boy (DADA Books, 2009) and a recipient of a grant from the Institute for Research on African Women, Children and Culture (IRAWCC).

The Writer’s Work as a Geographer

Hi. This is not a lecture; it is just an explanation of what I’ve done in my novel. Most writers are good at giving lectures, talking intellectually in gatherings, but I’m very far from it. I try to distance myself from the whole intellectual talk where you have to cite references and bibliographies; I tend to say things I know, I tend to talk about things I have good knowledge about. And when I was asked to talk or should I say discuss the use of map in fiction, I grabbed it quickly with an open hand, because it is something I like talking about and something I enjoy doing. More like something I like encountering in books, where I have to see things that I know on the sheet of paper, staring at me, like, ‘Hey, guy, you don’t know me or something?’

Like a moron, I would nod, ‘Yes, I know you.’ And I would have to start to ask, ‘Yes, you are that street after that street, eh? You are that house after that house, huh? You are the tree after this tree, oh? You are the bank after that post office, right?’

You can find these things in the new Nigerian novel, maybe, because we’ve gotten tired with all the ramblings of not calling a spade a spade. We are tired with calling Nsukka, Nkassu, just to elicit some kinda what? I don’t know. You can’t read a book and feel a sense of belonging again. You feel that all you are reading about is a far away land; meanwhile, this could be some place you know very well.

I remember travelling to Nsukka for the first time with a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I did that for one reason: I had been told by a reader that Ms Adichie’s description of the University campus was accurate. So, when I got admission into the University of Nigeria, and I had travelled to Nsukka for my registration, I thought that maybe, Kambili must have existed. The thing is that I began to visualize Ms Adichie as Kambili. I know she will hush me for saying this. But she should not, because this is the reader’s opinion, ok?

Few months after my matriculation, I got two young men, Eromo Egbejule and Osondu Awaraka who are writers, involved and we took motorcycles to Marguerite Cartwright Avenue to locate the house where Ms Adichie lived and we were faced with a heavy reality: a house that matches the description of Aunty Ifeoma’s house in Purple Hibiscus. I nudged and wondered what and how powerful creating a fictional setting from a real place could be.

That said, I have to tell you that I have problem with writers who want to sound smart, but are really not smart by even fictionalizing the names of streets, cities and countries, through renaming them, like someone called Nigeria, Naigara. Many writers have done this and the most irritating is the one Patrick Wilmort did in his last novel. We are all entitled to our style of writing, technique and how we figure out what stories we tell, but we must put the society we live in into consideration when we are writing about them, even when we have to do justice to real settings.

There’s a certain degree of joy and amusement I get when I encounter a place I know in fiction. It elevates me and the authenticity of the setting keeps me squirming. It happens that I suspend my belief for fictional events and focus on the fact that the setting is real. In Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, there’s a beautiful description of Calcutta (Kolkata). I decided to travel to Kolkata after reading the book and learning that the places described existed. While on train from Delhi, thoughts raced through my head and I kept thinking as we past greenery hills, mountains, beautiful trees and monkeys parading on treetops. By the time I got to Kolkata, I realized that the houses, shops and bazaars described in the book exist, but not with the names in the book. And the characters are nowhere to be found. But I knew that if you looked into the houses, you’d find the characters. Maybe, not with the real names. But you’d find them. The roads are not as dusty as have been described in the book. Many things have changed. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Chaudhuri’s candid and poignant description of the bad structures forced those in authority to take on the reconstruction of the city, which leads me to where I’m going now.

Fictionalising real settings with the real names can help a city, a country, by luring more tourists into it, depending on how you’ve done it.

You can help your environment by preserving its present or past for the future. I know that some authors find it easier just to make up fictional town or setting, but that is less a redeeming quality.

The geography in my novel is real. I took so much liberty in describing New Delhi, Lagos, Owerri and my village, Ezeoke. Readers have emailed me, telling me how pleased they are. An Indian lady who was at my book launch/reading told me how good she felt when she read my book and recognized each remarkable place I have described in it. That’s more of the happy side.

Writing about a real setting in a fictionalized way is very good, I must tell you. It helps. But every writer should be able to follow his heartbeat. The old cliché, ‘write what you know’ is at the same time, right and wrong. If we were all to write about what we know, JK Rowling wouldn’t have written her fantasy tales of the wizard boy. I can aptly assume that Jude Dibia wouldn’t have written the story of Adrian Njoko in Walking with Shadows. Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wouldn’t have written Half of a Yellow Sun. She never fought during the war, she was never there.

Maps, real maps fictionalized, can help readers have a sense of belonging when they are lost in a work of literature. It is more like building the future in the present; you understand your setting better when you know it better. There’s more to being a reader when you find yourself enjoying the description of the place you know by heart, which brings me to the conclusion that a writer is more like a Creator, a Geographer, a Map Reader, because he has the rare power other artists don’t have, to evoke a selfish world that can enliven the reader’s enthusiasm.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

P.A.G.E.S : 2 (2nd Series)

The author of The Abyssinian Boy will be reading pages from his debut book this Saturday (21.03.09) at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.


P.A.G.E.S, is the confluence of literature, art works, comics and photography. This programme is designed to converge fictionist, poets and playwrights at the Center for Contemporary Art, to give literary interpretation to the works being exhibited at the centre every month.


Onyeka Nwelue will read pages that will give literary interpretation to the theme of the exhibiton: The World is Flat, from his new book The Abyssinian Boy. The World is Flat has been developed and conceived as a mobile travelling exhibition. None of the artworks included in the exhibition take up more space than a traditional map. They can therefore be folded and inserted into a large envelope and sent to selected exhibition spaces around the world.

Venue: Centre for Contemporary Art, 9 McEwen Street, behind Domino Dinners, Sabo, Yaba, Lagos.

Date: Saturday 21.03.09

Time: 3 p.m to 5 p.m

Monday, 16 March 2009


We are concerned with the inability of transforming innate talents in the Creative Industry to the main stream of SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) in the country. And for this reason, we are out to scout, select and provide the young, talented and promising enterpreneurial the platform to achieve their dreams and ours' of making Nigerian and African youths believe in themselves by digging deep into their innate talents and transform it to entrepreneurship. This will make them to be responsible and reliable in their various departments in business and also, change their opinion on believing that travelling abroad is the opium of the life of a third-world country youth.

Hence Kowry Kreations Media, a non-profit and non-governmental organisation, came up with the project Youth Empowerment Project, under which we have Fashion Show, Art Exhibition, Musical Concert, TV Reality Show and more.

And to actualize this project, we started with the Fashion Show last year in collaborations with the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) and now we are going to have the second edition of the project tagged: FR:2 (Fashion Revolution Reloaded) with the support of INSPIRO, an event management company, also the producer of Nijazz and Lagos International Jazz Festival.

We have chosen three young and vibrant designers, Denrele Edun's (Soundcity mad-presenter) desinger, HerBay Stitches is one of them. Allen Culture, a well known designer in OOU and Buga Fash, the UNILAG designer. Denrele, Goodie, the musician, C'mion and many more will grace the runway.