In anticipation of Inua Ellams’ upcoming talk with UEA Live on the 17 March 2021, I got in contact to ask him a few questions about his work and his inspirations. Born in Nigeria, Ellams has found a home in both Ireland and London throughout his life. He dabbles both in poetry and playwriting, with his work often touching upon topics such as heritage and immigration.
I started by scoping out some base information: if someone was coming at Ellams’ work with absolutely no knowledge or experience of him, where would he suggest they start? And why?
“I would suggest they start with a book called #Afterhours.” Ellams says. “#Afterhours is an anthology, a memoir, a diary and a sequence of poems. It is set between 1984 when I was born, and 2002 when I turned 18. It goes through the formative years of my life and explains the kindling that turned me into an artist. It also shows my creative mind at work, grappling with concepts and ideas and theories to do with immigration masculinity nationhood religion identity and creativity.”
I asked about his signature Zanna Bukars – he is rarely seen without the caps that were popularised in Nigeria in the 60s, and I was curious about what they meant for his identity and his work.
“It’s an attempt to claim more of my heritage, and to hide my loss of hair as I age,” he explains. “I wish I could claim that it shapes my work but it doesn’t; it just gives my head a shape, and afford another avenue for self expression.”
Towards the end of 2020, where lockdown restrictions were still eased, Ellams had a run with An Evening With an Immigrant in London. A performance that combines childhood anecdotes and his experience as a refugee through spoken word, it seemed a particularly apt time to be performing for a live audience, considering the isolation that we were in the midst of experiencing.
“It was cathartic really, for myself and for the audience,” Ellams says. “It was great to show we could still be connected, and to display again how important connection was given the increasingly polarising social and political spaces we find ourselves in.”
He adds, in contemplation, “Looking back now and thinking about how prevalent the virus is, perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea.”
On the subject of creativity and producing poetry, Ellams discusses how he is “unconsciously constantly turning and turning, refining and refining, pruning and preening words to calcify and clarify its meanings, or their attempts at meaning.” He continues on to say, “It can be exhausting, but I’m getting better at steering or putting the purely poetic mind at rest or pushing it towards a narrative space, which is less pressured.”
One particular project of his that I was interested in was The Midnight Run. Described as an ‘urban social excursion project’, Ellams founded The Midnight Run in 2005 and gathers strangers for either 6 or 12 hours to explore the city and form bonds with each other through various exercises and activities. As an event that harbours creativity and community and fun among complete strangers, the poignancy and freedom of it stuck out to me, especially considering the current pandemic. I asked Ellams what his favourite aspect of it was:
“My favourite aspect of The Midnight Run is building trust among a group of disparate strangers, and getting them to laugh and be present with one another,” he says. “We disrupt the illusion of time. It slips by. It feels like a magic trick.”
He signs off his email with a simple “Inua x”. His UEA Live talk will be streamed live this coming Wednesday (17 March) – tickets can be found at https://www.uealive.com/programme/inua-ellams/.