Professor Hope Eghagha is the Head of the Department of English, the University of Lagos. A poet, dramatist, novelist and social critic, his works include Death, Not a Redeemer, Rhythms of the Last Testament, This Story must be Told, The Governor’s Lodge, Emperors of Salvation, Premonition and other Dramas, Mama Dances in the Night and so many others. In this encounter with Edozie Udeze he digs deep into his creative exploits, writing style and his love for myths, traditions, short stories and lots more.
What sorts of books do you like most?
Well, I read all kinds of books. I love biographies. At this time, I read biographies a lot. I can’t really explain, but that’s the way it is now. As a young man growing up, I read all kinds of books – thrillers – this was when I was in the university. Of course, I was compelled to read all kinds of books – classics, African writers. Now may be because I am into biographies, I read autobiographies.
When you read, what are the salient things you look out for?
I look out for the basics that will help me in life. Every life that is documented, there’s a lot to learn from it. Then you ask yourself, is it possible for me to do well? Is there anything very special in this person’s life? So, I look out for such things a lot when I read a book, things that will help me in life.
Who are your favourite authors?
Hmmh, well, in Nigeria, I love Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. These are my most favourites when it comes to Nigerian authors. Outside here, even then, it depends on categories. You know, I said I love autobiographies, biographies. I love Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela and all the rest. For such men who have made profound contributions to world affairs, and to life itself, I try to see how they made it – the beautiful sides of their lives. From their beginning till late and then I see what lessons I could learn from their lives.
When and where do you like to read most?
I read in my office a lot. But don’t laugh. I like to read in the toilet a lot. When I am in the toilet, doing the real thing, I like to read there. This is so because nobody disturbs me, although your office and your study are there. But while in the toilet nobody comes to disturb you, for obvious reasons. If I have a book that’s interesting, of course, I can stay much longer. In the toilet I am safe – sometimes my wife would say – are you okay? And I’d say, I am very okay.
What is your preferred literary genre?
Fiction – prose fiction. Yes, I love short stories, because within a short time, they are able to do what a novel could do in a whole book – two hundred and ninety pages and so on. A short story could do this in fifteen pages. So, I love fiction. I love short stories, and in the last ten to fifteen years due to inadequate time, I read poetry a lot. I read Christopher Okigbo a lot. He is interesting to read. You can read a poem within five and ten minutes. So the time you would use to read a novel, if you’re busy and on the move, you’re able to do so. In fact, sometimes, I am reading two or three novels at the same time. I was reading My Name is Okoro, by Sam Omatseye and Baba Segi’s Wife by Sola Soneyin at the same time. I couldn’t finish either. So it is like that. But if it is a poem you can read and interrogate within one hour and move on to another poem.
You were enamoured by theatre at a time?
Yes, I have moved away from plays now. I can’t say in the last one or two years, I have read any play, except the ones I teach here at the department of English. But to wake up and pick up a play to read, I’ve not done that in a while.
Then, what books have had the greatest impacts on you?
The greatest book, I have read? Well, emh… The most profound book I have read is 1984 by George Orwell. But what broadened my imagination about the possibility of the novel, may be because I read it in year one, in the university. It taught me a lot. So, when I read 1984, I saw the way a writer could enter the mind of a reader… How he could enter the past, the present and the future. It is amazing the way he did it, I mean Orwell. That had a profound effect on me. Another one is A Brave New World by Huxley. I read that one too and it had its effect on me. But when it comes to African writers series, it is Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe and not Things Fall Apart. I am fascinated by the character of Ezeulu, the chief priest. The way he is presented by Chinua Achebe is amazing and fascinating. Way back at the University of Jos, the thrillers were it – I read James Hardley Chase a lot. I read Sydney Sheldon. These are not classics. You see, even before I went to America, I knew what America was like through these books. Those thriller writers made it possible for me. Well, those were what we read in school as past time. So when it comes to classics, the novels that have been admitted into the canon have been it for me. When you are talking about Charles Dickens and all the rest of them, the way they were able to describe situations and character development and all that, from the time they had, to elaborate on all of these things… Reading Great Expectations, for example, you see what I mean? Well, I don’t have time to go back to prose fiction most of the time. I teach drama here.
As a child, what books intrigued you most?
Oh, as a child? King Solomon’s Mines; She who must be obeyed. Yes those fantastic tales they created about Africa. Of course when I matured and was able to interrogate those novels – those books, I knew that was somebody’s fantastic imaginative re-creation of African experience, about wild territories that white men had to come and conquer.
Yes, those days those were the books. But then reading the Bible, the Holy Book of God, talking about the Old Testament, for instance, held me spellbound. My background, my upbringing is particularly dictated by my Christian consciousness. Those stories in the Bible, the story of Goliath, for instance, that of David too, went beyond what I saw in the Bible. I was a David, coming from a humble background and the world had to be conquered. Then I was a David, facing the world that was a Goliath. And I am sure Sam Omatseye has the same kind of story. Most of us did. You had a lot of obstacles on the way but you were not deterred.
At what point in your life did you want to become a writer?
I had always wanted to be a writer, very early in life. I started writing when I was in secondary school. In fact, I did my first staged performance when I was in secondary school. I wrote the play within an hour. I had always known I could write. I wanted to write; to develop short stories. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to complete it. I wrote plays. It was much later that I went into poetry.
You were once into myth. What happened?
Yes, that also came very early. My mother used to tell us stories and you know, my father was the typical Christian who could not tolerate such stories, such myths in the house. Yet my father could not understand all those things about tortoise – tortoise did this, tortoise did that. Sometimes my father would say wetin? Were you there when it happened? So, she did it usually when my dad wasn’t there to teach us songs and all. So, I grew up in love with myth that very early. But when I went to the university I heard my teacher talking about my native experience and I said oh, this resonated very fine with me. So I was fascinated by such stories and the story of an Okpe King (In Urhobo land) who would tell his people to fell a tree that would not get to the ground. His subjects would go there to catch the tree so that it would not touch the ground and so on. That forms the outline of my second play. Such myths attract me but it is not even a myth. It is a history; the story of a people. It is part of our history and that was why there was almost an interregnum for a hundred years. And the Okpe people did not have a king until sometimes in the middle of 20th century. So, I have been fascinated by myth like my friend Omatseye has noted.
So, how has writing shaped your life?
Shaped and reordered my life? Oh, you see, as a writer you have to show obligation to rise beyond the ordinary. You don’t have to be pedestrian. No! You have to evaluate every story, every picture totally, in the sense that people learn a lot from you as a writer. You’re a teacher of values; cultural values and as it were, you have to live above board. So, when you are writing and pointing out things, you have to teach people… Let us be frank, inter-ethnic marriage. As a writer, you have to see that the tendency to be good is universal. You don’t have to say I won’t marry an Igbo girl because she is Igbo. You’ve risen beyond that. Yes, you have! You don’t have to advise your daughter not to marry an Igbo boy, because he is Igbo. No! You have to look beyond that; that in every culture, in every clime, in every geographical space, there are good people. And if love can bind two different people from two different cultural backgrounds, what right have you to stop them? If you see yourself face-to-face with your favourite author, what is the first question you’d ask him?
How did you achieve this? How did you achieve this feat? Ah, I love D. H. Lawrence – Sons and Lovers and all his novels. My best is Sons and lovers – the way D. H. Lawrence captured that story, created all the imagination, how he was able to go into the spirits of those characters. He so painted the characters as if they had lives of their own. I was enamoured; I was attracted to D. H. Lawrence and I said could I write like this? And then the drama of his own life; the way he wrote it, and all that. He died very young of tuberculosis and if he had lived now he would have lived longer. But the short time he lived, he was able to create literature for humanity.
Of all the plays you’ve read, which character struck you most?
There’re so many characters in all the plays I’ve read… Elesin Oba in Death and King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka struck me most. I mean a man who is created in that kind of dilemma, put in a position that his life is terminated, particularly as recreated by Soyinka…because the historical Elesin is different from the dramatic Elesin created by Soyinka in his play. But you see, looking at that character, the dilemma he faces and finally the choice that he makes put that within historical context, I was so fascinated by his character that I did a play along same line. Yes, I did that. I recreated him. He actually rejected that role because of his Christian background. Now we are exporting Christianity back to the white man. We are more involved in it and more proactive. We are more passionate about it, may be because of our poverty. But we are keen on it all the same. Christianity creates a room for you for therapy. Instead of being in the laboratory creating energy, you’re in church singing and dancing away for God. Yes, the contradiction is an irony. By 7 o’clock in the morning, a Professor of Nuclear Physics is in a church singing and clapping. But the scientist in America is in the laboratory early in the morning working and discovering new things and ideas. So, those are part of the ironies that we face. But it is still part of our own experience here in Africa.
What book do you plan to read next?
Oh, I have not made up my mind yet. Yes, I bought some books of recent, books that I have not read. Some of the books I bought them when I was in government but I have not read them. So, I have not really made up my mind which of them to read next.
How do you arrange your library?
I do not have a library at home. What I do when I get home is to surrender myself to … But all my books are here in the office. It is a personal decision not to have a library at home. I have libraries in the village house, I have in my Warri house. But here, when I sit back, I pick a book from my shelf and begin to read. It is like meeting a beautiful woman for the first time. The encounter of a beautiful book, that smell, you see, I love it. You can’t replicate it. I am not fascinated by e-book or the like. If you smell a book, man, you are in a world of your own. So, as I said, I buy all kinds of books, from political science, to philosophy and science and so on.
Are you a re-reader and how often do you do that?
I go back to some books I have read before. Yes, I do that and it depends on the mood I am in. Yes, if I want to write or recreate, I go to Okigbo. Sometimes too, I go back to the classics especially where I am fascinated by the character. So I go back even to Shakespeare due to the use of language that you can capture there. Sometimes too I have had to go back to Clinton.