London, Inua Ellam's many mouthed, magnificent, beast

Interview with Inua Ellams. Inua Ellams: you may stumble upon that name at The National Theatre, the Tate Modern or the Royal Shakespeare Company, where some of his plays are produced before touring England and abroad. A poet and a playwright, an awards collector, a performer and a graphic designer whose clients include Louis Vuitton and Coca-Cola, Ellams strikes you as a bright, vulnerable and sensitive person who spends time writing clues in verse.

Although ideas and emotions about immigration cover a large chunk of his work and life story, his poetry, whether expressed in poem, play, film or image, is universal. He deals with destiny and faith in plays about immigrants and backward standards of ‘black’ masculinity (An Evening With An Immigrant, Barber Shop Chronicles) in the same honest way he treats the enchantment of dating apps in screenplays like Swipe Slow.

“Not all who wander are lost” or “drama can save your life''. These two quotes gathered from his website may simplify his thoughts about life and art. When he moved from Nigeria to London aged 12 –then unto Dublin– the boy who had grown up firmly rooted in Nigerian cultures discovered he was a ‘black man’. At his school in Holland Park he also became aware of dozens of different identities: ‘The whole world was in my classroom’, he states.

Inspired by the romantic ideal of sculpting pure emotion into art, Ellams, a subject of the obscurity and dictatorship of immigration policies, channels everything from rage to laughter through his work, often treating language like a rich multivocal fabric that knits aspects of London’s cultural diversity.

You portray barbershops as safe spaces where people –especially black men– can show their emotions, find intimacy and honest conversation; sometimes even counseling. Do you find London is mainly oppressive for certain groups of people?

London is the least oppressive for many groups of people, but because people from across the world and from as wide a variety of backgrounds as possible are here, our collective oppressions amount to a tidal wave of complaints and oppressions that is ultimately insurmountable. It is London’s virtue and curse. It is a many mouthed beast of a city, and even as we enjoy the many things we can feast on, we complain the feast doesn’t satisfy all our pallets. But, the relentless attempt to, is what makes London magnificent.

In 2005 you founded the Midnight Run, which you describe as ‘an arts-filled, night-time, playful, walking, urban movement that attempts to reconnect inner city lives with inner city spaces’. In what ways has it shifted your perception of the city?

London is one of the busiest places on Earth, a fast, thriving city. It is hostile sometimes, to those who seek a slower pace of life, and it carries others away in its swiftness. Sometimes, it has drowned me, and the pace of trying to work with it has also numbed aspects of my humanity and ability to empathise with strangers. These are some of the wounds The Midnight Run heals. When it does, it shifts the perception of an out-of-control-city, instead, it becomes a place we can slow down at will, we can switch off and make more humane and empathetic.

You claim to be a Londoner more than anything else and at the same time you feel you don't fit in. How do you reconcile these two feelings? Do they need to be reconciled to feel at peace?

London is home to those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere, and those who feel like they belong everywhere. It is a contradiction, and I am aware of it, and to a certain extent, thrive in it, so I don’t need to reconcile with it. The fish is in the water as much as the water is in the fish.

You’ve mentioned how important it is to negotiate the divide between creative, inclusive city spaces with exclusive and cold places that are the effect of property prices. How is London doing in this task?

 London is currently failing at this task, and I’m afraid to admit that under the current government and their politics of division, continued wealth creation for the rich, decimation of the creative industries and lack of funding for inner-city culture… things will get far far worse, before there is a hope in hell’s chance of getting better.

Don't miss Inua Ellams at the Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias 2020. Identity, migration and living together. Inua Ellams in conversation with Claire Armitstead. Thursday, January 30th, 18:00 - 19:00 h, Hotel Sofitel (Salón Santa Clara)