Monday, 9 May 2011

Writer, A Igoni Barrett is committed to his country, Nigeria

Writer, A. Igoni Barrett, is committed to his country, Nigeria

By Gwyneth Harold Davidson

Nigerian writer with Jamaican roots, A. Igoni Barrett, was in a good mood when Bookends caught up with him via a Skype link recently. His family was gathering for a wedding, but the other reason for his joy was the recent advances in his writing career. He has completed a second collection of short stories, secured an aggressive agent and has been offered valuable residential fellowships abroad.

Although he is only 32 years of age, Barrett has spent the past decade building a solid reputation as one of Nigeria’s energetic, young writers. He first came to public attention in 2005 when he won the BBC World Service short story competition for his story, The Phoenix. Since then he has been on  reading tours across several African cities and last year founded the BookJam reading series, bringing internationally acclaimed writers to audiences in Lagos. Among the things that Barrett took away from those experiences is that several of the more successful writers do not choose to live in Nigeria. The reasons given are that publishing systems and opportunities are not easily available in their homeland. Barrett is determined to be excellent, be successful, and be at home.

“We are suffering from a brain drain in my country. Nigerians go abroad and do well. I don’t want to be like so many of our writers and live abroad. Public education is subsidized in Nigeria. The public puts in all of this money to create graduates, many of whom then leave to teach in universities in Europe and the USA or who go to the United Arab Emirates to run their systems and then we are left without a system. I want to show people that you can make something of yourself here in whatever field you choose.”

Barrett has a vocation to use his writing to help to transform his country. He wants Nigerians to read high quality writing about themselves and their situations from writers living there.

He challenges himself to take on difficult circumstances in the life of the ordinary person in his country, but somehow manages to maintain the humour and small joys that come with being alive. In one of his more recent works, My Smelling Mouth Problem, the protagonist who has bad breath participates in an adventurous and humourous bus ride. A Jamaican reader will find that situations in Barrett’s Lagos mirror scenes in Jamaica. He said that his Jamaican father, the noted writer Lindsay Barrett, told him many times that he always felt at home in Nigeria because it felt as if he was still on his Caribbean island.

Lindsay Barrett has made his mark as a poet and essayist in Nigeria for several decades and has travelled that large country extensively. His passion for writing about social issues seems to have passed on to this son.

“Some people say that my stories are tragic and dark; but I like to think of them as redemptive stories about my country. I write some of them—for example, My Smelling Mouth Problem—in the tone and accent that Nigerians use when speaking English. That is a humourous voice. When I talk to my father I realize that there is so much of Nigeria that I do not know. Nigeria is a highly populated country with more than 150 million people. In Lagos, you can live on the same street with your brother and not see him for years,” he says.

Born in the industrial town of Port Harcourt, Barrett attended the prestigious University of Ibadan in another state and also spent some of his growing-up years in Lagos. His mother is a teacher of English and her ancestors are Kalabari people from the oil-producing Niger delta, who participated in the slave trade to the Americas. Barrett says that his father sometimes jokes that he deliberately married his mother to get back at those ancestors. Barrett’s middle name, Igonibo, speaks to his father’s status, as it means “stranger”.

Barrett discovered his writing voice while an undergraduate student of agriculture at Ibadan University. It was his second attempt to fulfill a family expectation that he get a degree.

“My grandmother wanted me to be a doctor and after one week as a physiology undergraduate I knew that medical science was not for me. I then got into agriculture, but with one year left for graduation I made the decision to leave and become a writer,” he said of his student years.

Barrett was a 21-year-old university student when he made the brave move to find his father who he had not seen in more than ten years. Lindsay Barrett read his early work and declared that he “had talent and now had to put in the work.”

Barrett said of that meeting, “My father was the first person to support me as a writer. I felt I had to prove to myself that I was serious about writing, so I gave the ultimate sacrifice—I gave up my university education for a self-education in writing.”

Father and son have since then been close professional colleagues and supporters of each other’s work. Igoni Barrett says that he finds the relationship “incredibly empowering”.

After a decade of pursuing writing as his primary profession, Barrett has secured important literary achievements including the publishing of his book of short stories, From Caves of Rotten Teeth. He has been on a three-month writer’s residency in Kenya, and will be on two more before the end of the year in the USA and in Italy. Also, he has a new agent who is eager to sell his latest book.

While in Jamaica, Barrett will visit Trench Town, other well known culture sites, and is looking forward to meeting his family.

Among Barrett’s treasures of 2011, will be his participation in the Two Seasons Talking Trees Literary Fiesta, in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth on May 28. Reading in the afternoon segment Roots and Branches, Barrett will be the sole international writer on a lineup with 13 Jamaican writers.