His prodigious talent, irrepressible garrulity, and seemingly affected eccentricity had not endeared him to some very powerful people at the university who made sure that he not only failed to graduate with first class honors, but that life would be miserable for him there as a graduate assistant. His mentor and distant kin, Professor Jas Amankulor, was away in the United States where he sadly met his untimely death through cancer. In Amankulor's absence Irobi was a fair target for his powerful adversaries, "imbeciles" as he often referred to them cursing under his breath, men who once were just as bright in their own youth, perhaps not quite as talented, yet full of energy and promise but who, with time, had lost the will to excel and eventually retired to the little fiefdom of the academy whence to wield their cudgels at the younger talents who reminded them of their own earlier promise, and perhaps more poignantly, their failure to reach that promise. "Imbeciles", he would spit, "absolute cunts! Scavengers loitering around looking for putrid flesh, accursed vultures!" They would have to feed on their own mothers' flesh, he would say to me, not his.
Ultimately, those vultures drove us out of Nigeria into lifelong exile. We both wrote about that exile fate, versified our own deaths and wished for funerals in the homeland, yet we held onto stubborn hope that, in spite of every tribulation, we would prevail even over exile and banishment, and one day return alive to build a new republic. Esiaba Irobi never made it.
In 1987 when we met, I was a budding artist and writer who had taken to writing art and literary criticism for money because I was indigent, although my direst wish was to be a poet and make my art. Irobi, on the other hand, despite the human daemons that haunted and persecuted him, was a prodigy not only in the popular sense of that word, but, in fact, in his outrageously copious output as a poet and dramatist, also. In addition to his classroom duties, he was directing plays, some of them his own, often in long, sold out runs; he was producing a seemingly endless stream of play scripts, he traded barbs with me in the national weeklies about literature and language, he performed weekly at the Anthill, a literary cabaret that artist and musician Gbubemi Amas established on the outskirts of the university as a den for poets, dramatists, budding singers and songwriters, and the lot. And, every so often, he took a theatre troupe on the road to perform. His troubles with his senior colleagues in the Drama Department did not seem to slow him down; instead, it drove his exceptional industry even as it fueled some of the violent edge that marked his work at that time. Theatre students, young actors, budding playwrights and poets alike adored him, and their adulation fired his spirit as he enjoined them to not only confront the many ills in what was already a failing post-colony, but to aspire to great personal accomplishment in their own lives as well. Despite his legendary mirth and loud laughter, he was also a perfectionist both in class and on the set. He did not give an inch to mediocrity or lousiness on a young actor's part or that of a student lighting director, and his temper, though always short-lived, was as explosive as the revolutions that he espoused in his plays. Most importantly, he taught by example as he poured everything, indeed, every drop of sweat into his work on stage or on the set.
I recall Irobi in the lead role of Elesin Oba in legendary director Eni Jones Umuko's production of Wole Soyinka's Death and The King's Horseman. In the play, based on real events, the monarch dies and the commander of his cavalry, the king's horseman, prepares to commit required ritual suicide so he could herald the dead king into the afterworld. But then, as is to be expected in such great tragedies, an even greater tragedy occurs. The colonial authorities learn about the rumored ritual suicide and decide to step in and prevent it, not knowing how precariously the universe of their subjects rested on that critical ritual. A British prince is expected in the colony the same day, and the District Officer would rather not take chances. On his part the king's horseman also delays his preparations so he could take a last bride before his long journey to the beyond. This distraction creates a time lapse and opens the door for the colonial authorities who, eventually, succeed in arresting the cavalier and foiling his bid to fulfill his pledge to his king and his people. The monarch's spirit is left to wander without a ferry into the greater realm. At that point the horseman's son, who is studying in England, returns to bury his father as is his duty as an eldest son, only to find that his father has failed to accompany the king, bringing dishonor on the family and potential destruction to the clan and the kingdom. The grief-stricken son disowns his father, and then takes the disgraced cavalier's place by committing suicide to save the day.
In his role as the calvary leader, Esiaba Irobi put in one of the most memorable performances ever seen on stage. From the proud and rumbustious royal cavalier to the flirtatious and colorful groom on his wedding night, Irobi was nothing but spellbinding. But theatre became life became sacred rite when he stepped into the cavalier's final preparations before death. With throbbing music and elegiac praise-singers egging him on, he became transcendent, like a great masquerade, ritual in slow motion, every step and every gesture testifying to the unimaginable burden of a man who must die to please his king and save his people and their universe. As the sweat poured from his brow each night, and hearts thumped all around to the relentless drums, every sinew in his body bore that testament, heroic and monumental, in silence greater than silence itself, spirit already severed from the albatross of flesh. Most had never seen theatre quite as electric and probably never would again. Earlier acquaintance had seen Irobi in Shakespearian roles, but those who also saw him in the role of Elesin Oba attest that nothing else could compare.
In 1989, Irobi and I left for the United Kingdom on a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office fellowship, he to Sheffield University and I to London. In those last few years before our departure, especially between 1986 and 1989, Esiaba Irobi was at the height of his powers as a poet, playwright, actor and theatre director. One of his great motivators was the annual award competitions run by the Association of Nigerian Authors. Each year he would submit at least two full-length manuscripts in both the poetry and drama categories, all meticulously finished and bound. Each year he would end up a runner-up, but never a winner. He would curse the "impotent" and "incestuous" judges and do a routine of showing them his arse in absentia. "Philistines" he would say, "who have no understanding of what poetry is." In other countries, he would remind me, people appreciate their youths, recognize their talent, and encourage their efforts, "but here, they pull the cotyledons with bare hands and leave them on sidewalks to die." He would stew and curse and spit for a day or two, metaphorically turn out the Association of Nigerian Authors and its "senile" judges just like he turned out our bedsit every morning looking for his toothbrush, and then, he would be back at work, always on two or three manuscripts simultaneously, ready for the following year.
In time, scholars will eventually leave their opinion, but I dare say that Esiaba Irobi's greatest work as a poet and playwright was written during this period, while he was in his late twenties, before we went into exile. The classic poems that he is now best remembered for: "Judy", "Soniya", "Frankfurt", "Mabera", were all written in Nsukka during this difficult period. So were the great, revolutionary plays that now define his theatre, what I referred to back then as the theatre of the bloody metaphor. Nwokedi, in which the youthful hero and his radical age-group, the Ekumeku turn over the old order in their town, the age-group named and modeled after a historic nationalist movement among the Western Igbo; Hangmen Also Die, in which the same revolutionary themes of prevalent corruption, societal decadence, and violent dislodging of the old order repeat, even Cemetery Road which won the annual International Student Playscript Competition at the British National Student Drama Festival in 1993, were written during the same period.
While he rehearsed at the theatre at night or perhaps performed on stage, he kept a pad open on his office desk on which he toiled at scripts. And just as every writer has his or her writing eccentricities, some down to the color of the paper they write on and what point of the compass they face their desk, Irobi had his, too, one of which was to write almost exclusively on the back of old wall almanacs. The logic of this, which I was to discover and the ingenuity of which I found particularly fascinating, was that the broad empty space on the back of a wall almanac and calendar was spacious enough that one did not need to turn pages as one would with a notebook, You could write, edit, correct, cross out and replace several hundred lines of poetry on a single spread with notes all around including dialogue for other projects, without ever having to turn a page and in the process lose either your trend of thought, or track of what lines you have already written. Your whole day's or whole week's effort was all laid out before you. This was particularly useful for the long poems in several movements that Irobi was writing at the time, especially inspired by Elliott and Derek Walcott. As I was to discover, it was a lot easier to dismember and restructure a long poem this way than if one wrote in a regular notebook or in typescript. There were no personal computers in Nigeria at the time.
And, there is a rigorous, muscular, and daring engagement with form and sound and sense of space that we find in those early efforts that seldom appears in Irobi's work in exile.
It is almost an oxymoron to describe a writer as erudite, but when I met Esiaba Irobi he was certainly one of the most widely read individuals I had ever encountered. This is relevant because in the late 1980s, Nigeria had already begun to experience the gradual throttling of intellectual pursuits that made access to books harder and harder, especially books published abroad. Although it was still possible for individuals to travel abroad and return with books and journals, subscriptions were rarer and books were already less available in the bookstores. That being the case, the breadth of Irobi's reading and the level of his familiarity with global literary currents was impressive, to say the least, and that would remain the case for as long as I knew him. Not only was he a voracious reader, he also wholly owned every text that he read, picked through it with a fine scalpel, and instantly and effortlessly fed whatever he found useful or pertinent into his work. This encyclopedic erudition would mark his poetry even while in his drama, he determinedly refrained from the deference to European classics that one finds in the work of earlier Nigerian dramatists.
The vast literary references in his poetry did in fact create occasional unease between us, as I found reason every now and then to take issue with what I considered unnecessary instances. Interesting enough, this was the case with his last collection, Why I don't Like Phillip Larkin and Other Poems. I recall taking very strong objection with the title, as I did the title poem, because I assumed both to be unnecessary reactions to literary events and figures wholly inconsequential to our work and our world. Who the hell cares about Phillip Larkin, I remember cursing out loud at him, and why should it matter what he did or did not do? But, of course, Larkin was only tangential to Irobi's theme, which was more the trials and misfortunes of the African poet in exile.
It was exile, after all, that terminated Irobi's promise as a writer and almost destroyed his art. Uncannily but quite characteristically, he foreshadowed his exile in his long masterpiece, Cotyledons, the last book of poetry that he published in Nigeria before our departure, and one of the finest, most sophisticated treatises ever crafted on the tragedy of lost nationhood and the heartbreak of exile. At the end of one movement of the poem titled "The Wall", Irobi wrote:
THE TALLER TREES
gigantic in their height,
in the best places in the sun.
their canopies and shadows,
wriggling, crawling, rolling,
WEARY WITH TOIL,
The creepers, men like me,
I leave to live, I exit to exist.
It is quite true that Irobi could not have survived for much longer in Nigeria had we not left when we did, but it also has to be admitted now that his prognosis of the exile experience, beside the gnawing wound of nostalgia and loss, was perhaps too optimistic. While we were not entirely naive about the cultural and political travesties of the West, and while departure most certainly saved us both from early demise either at our own hands or those of the state, what we did not anticipate and could not imagine was the enormous price of the ticket. We left to live alright, but in exile we could only barely exist.
While home actively tried to destroy us, it nevertheless fueled a resistant charge back in anger, if you will, amidst a community of equally young, equally indignant and defiant talents that gave context and meaning to our art and drove our creative outpouring. In the cold and palpable isolation of exile, all that disappeared, leaving each man to his own individual circumstances in disparate locations and climes. The focus of our endeavors, that nationalist locomotive that powers the fire and fervor of every generation of creative minds, was no longer at our disposal, and with it something gradually dissipated and died as we rallied to new irritations and challenges, new distractions and disappointments most of which were now, at least in Irobi's case and tragically so, quite personal and often, quite mundane.
The great and rousing vision and determination to create a whole new national literature pertinent to our circumstance and moment in history, to take the great legacy that we inherited from Achebe, Soyinka and Okigbo and propel it into the future as a collective, a historic, creative and intellectual powerhouse embroiled in the double-barreled task of survival and national revival, slowly got washed over by petty, nagging, personal trials and assaults in a foreign land where such high-minded visions found no footing. We had left to live, and now, living proved so dreary and the cost so dear.
Esiaba Irobi enrolled at Sheffield for his doctoral degree, but soon got discontented. His goal had always been to study with African theatre scholar Professor Martin Banham at Leeds University where Wole Soyinka had studied back in the 1950s. And so, after a spell at Sheffield, he moved to Leeds to study with Banham. Although he felt isolated and dissatisfied at Sheffield, the larger rationale of the move to Leeds was never clear to me beside the distant association with Soyinka. It did not strike me that there was much that Irobi could learn from Banham or Leeds that he didn't already know, and I still hold that view. If anything, moving to Leeds threw a spanner in the works of the fellowship under which we were both studying in England, which required that fellows complete their doctoral program in 36 months or lose their sponsorship. By moving to Leeds, Irobi inevitably missed the schedule and soon after, his three-year fellowship ended, leaving him in dire straights.
While still enrolled at Leeds, he took a job as a lecturer in the drama department at Liverpool John Moores University, and moved there. He spent five years in Liverpool and that half decade would prove to be among the most trying of his entire adult life. In an interview published in the Nigerian daily, The Guardian, in 2006, he mentioned the "extreme racism" that he suffered at Liverpool John Moores, but he and I often spoke about it while he was there and he would spend hours at times detailing the deep resentment and diabolical frustration that became his regular fortune. That experience, in addition to the fact that it grievously distracted him from his work at Leeds, would also undermine whatever little faith he had ever harbored in the basic decency of the British, and inject a new and highly corrosive acidity into his poetry.
In the final stanzas of "An African Poet in England Curses his English Head of Department", written toward the end of his period at Liverpool John Moores and published in 2004 as part of a cycle of poems titled Rejection Slips, Irobi addressed the following words to his boss whom he refers to as "My dear H.O.D, i.e., Head of a Donkey":
May your students mistake you for Caligula
or Grendel or the Cyclops or Nero or Nebuchadnezzar
Or Jack the Ripper or Richard West or Jeffrey
Dahmer and deal with you accordingly...
When you bid the earth adieu, preferably
by stoning or public strangling, may you
be buried in the belly of a thousand wolves
and foxes and hyenas and other scavengers.
May vultures share your flesh shred by shred
As they sing their national anthem in German
In the otherwise seemingly humorous poem which the writer introduces by explaining in the opening stanza that in the culture that he came from, "it is okay for a poet to curse, provided it is in verse!", the depth of his bitterness is only barely masked.
While Irobi kept up his active schedule as a stage director, albeit in mostly college productions, his career as a playwright and, in fact, an active publishing poet, effectively came to an end in Liverpool as he increasingly shifted his attention to scholarship. He was very deeply interested in indigenous African theatre, which was not only the subject of his doctoral research at Leeds but had always been the source of his theatre, also. Always an enthusiast of the work of August Wilson and Derek Walcott, this interest would in time extend to African American and Caribbean theaters, which he taught for many years. His sole play in exile, The Fronded Circle, was equally rooted in the results of his long research into especially Igbo, Yoruba and Igala theatre.
I must confess that Irobi's shift to scholarship did not meet my warm reception, just as his earlier obsession with Leeds did not. I felt rather strongly that it grievously distracted him from what I thought was his true calling and duty, his creative writing, and I did not refrain from regularly making my disappointment known though it was hard not to appreciate and respect why his brilliant mind was drawn to scholarly inquiry. The suggestion that one should ignore scholarship and concentrate on creative work is one that I am quite familiar with, and I know that it is always with more than slight irritation that I have to wave it off. So, I know that although he never betrayed his irritation nor engaged me in an argument about it, he did not always receive kindly my constant nagging about the issue. In the end, his published scholarly output was modest at best, although given the numerous ideas that we discussed over the years, there is every reason to expect that his unpublished scholarship would prove quite formidable when his archives eventually come to light.
Esiaba Irobi left Liverpool John Moore's in 1997, and moved to New York City where he took up appointment at the Tisch School at New York University. Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Caryl Phillips were among the many luminaries teaching at New York University at the time. Also, New York with its vibrant theatre both on and off Broadway, seemed like a city made specially for Irobi, and he wasted no time immersing himself in it. By this time, however, something of the brazen edge that always drove him toward the center in our younger years, appeared to have been blunted by his experiences in Britain. He attended and spoke at conferences, took up with a lady from his home county who lived in Harlem and worked as a nurse, and furiously devoted himself to stage directing. But as with his last years in Britain, his efforts were now limited to college productions and fringe projects. He taught African theatre, especially the work of Femi Osofisan, as well as African American theatre, with particular interest in the theatre of August Wilson. He developed courses that traced the poetic and performative elements of hip hop to West Africa, and could hold any audience rooted to a spot as he discussed the work of Nas and Jay Z, his favorite rap artistes. He directed the plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi. But none of his own plays went on stage. We endlessly discussed ideas for new projects in dance drama, including off-Broadway revival of his own great dance dramas like Nwokedi, but nothing came of those discussions. From the mid-90s onwards, his energies were given almost entirely to his scholarly research, and to teaching and directing the work of other playwrights. It seemed as though he had reached the conclusion that he stood no chance of success in the West as a playwright.
This might come as a surprise to anyone familiar with how much has been made of the award that Cemetery Road won in Britain in 1993, but as I indicated earlier on, the International Student Playscript Competition award, which is often referred to as the World Drama Trust award in his biographical entries, is an obscure, albeit important, student prize which had in fact earlier been won, consecutively in 1989 and 1990, by younger Nigerian playwrights at much earlier stages of their careers (Biyi Bandele-Thomas in 1989 for his play, Rain, and Ndubuisi Anike in 1990 for Catalyst of The New Dawn.) It was not the Obie or Emmy that a playwright of Esiaba Irobi's genius and stature might expect at that rather mature stage in his career, and was far from enough to put his plays on stage at the Royal Court or on Broadway. But he had determined, I am convinced, even that early in our journey, rightly or otherwise, that the West would never warm to his ideas or provide the space for his work.
I believe he reached the wrong conclusion and much too early, and I put it down to a number of reasons, among them the fact that he began his period in Britain in the far isolation of Sheffield, and routing his journey through Leeds and Liverpool did not help. I am strongly convinced that had Esiaba Irobi spent his years in Britain living and working in London, the story would have been different.
Unlike Sheffield, Liverpool or Leeds, London not only had a vast and vibrant theatre scene, perhaps more importantly for a sensitive writer like Irobi, it also had a diverse and active conglomeration of international theatre communities that could have provided a welcoming space and home as well as a dependable audience for his efforts. During the period in question, London's diverse theatre scene had provided opportunities for non-western writers like Caryl Phillips who in fact started out in Leeds and Sheffield, Odia Ofeimun who is better known as a poet, the young Bandele-Thomas who, like Phillips, gave as much time to fiction as he did to playwriting, and quite a list of others. And, there was not only stage, including several minority theatre and dance groups with regular programs on different niche stages and very much suited to Irobi's unique theatre in the round, there was television, also. In the isolation of Sheffield and Liverpool, none of these was available to him.
Another reason, which I mentioned a little earlier, was Irobi's decision to pursue scholarship rather than devote his whole attention to creative writing. Had he decided differently, and followed in the footsteps of his idol Wole Soyinka who in the late 1950s abandoned his plans for postgraduate studies in Leeds and instead moved to London to devote his energies to theatre, I believe that London would have discovered Irobi's genius and allowed him the space to reinvent himself and pursue a most productive and thriving career as a dramatist. Instead of the debilitating teaching job that he took in Liverpool, he could have survived in London on his writing and the support of his family, especially his elder sister who still resides there, as well as friends. London would have provided the creative, intellectual, and cultural community that he needed and so sorely missed.
A third reason, and a very crucial one, is that in spite of Irobi's uncanny foreshadowing of his exile, the tragic circumstances and hasty nature of our departure from Nigeria meant that we really did not devote any time to crafting strategies for survival in the West. It is not clear to me if Esiaba Irobi had in mind to become a permanent expatriate, despite such implications in his poetry. I know on my part, at least, that although in A Gathering Fear, I wrote about about all my years being "blown away in distant lands like husks of millet in harmattan wind", such lines were written more from anxiety and dread than as indicators of any wish or desire to live permanently in the West. In other words, with our minds set on a speedy return home, few of us ever looked carefully into the requirements for visibility and effective integration into the culture of the center. We simply rolled with events, committing one strategic error after another, such that by the time we realized that return was well away in the unknown future, it was more or less too late to adapt or adequately reinvent ourselves for the peculiar challenges of survival.
Irobi noted in the Guardian interview mentioned earlier that, while Europeans who moved to other parts of the world to settle were referred to as "settlers", folks who are now moving in the opposite direction to Europe are referred to instead as "immigrants", thus underlying the general hostility and marginalization that meets postcolonial expatriates in the West. Now, while that hostility and instant relegation most certainly represent the immigrant's most visible obstacles, it is the case, also, that many of us arrive in the West with the mindset of momentary travelers, even seasonal migrant laborers, with no stake in their new abode and no desire to settle. This is altogether typical of African expatriates. When people arrive with no desire to settle, they make few plans and rather little effort to contest for a permanent place no matter how well-deserved. Because the intentions are ad hoc, and the focus is on return, the psychology of the African expatriate experience in the West goes a long way to explain our often far from resilient will to carve out a place and register our name not as fleeting players from elsewhere, but as rightful contenders, as settlers. In other words, it is not just the place that defines us as immigrants rather than settlers; we, in fact, arrive with the mentality of immigrants, and not settlers. Settlers dig in, immigrants give in. Or give up.
It would be inaccurate to state or imply that Esiaba Irobi did not contest for his place in the West. In fact, over the course of the first few years of his period in Britain, he relentlessly sent manuscripts and proposals for new work to editors and publishers, but little came of it. He even recorded this quite graphically in one of the "curse" poems from Rejection Slips aptly titled, "A Frustrated African Poet Curses His Publishers" (2004). The first three lines of the poem register his own testimonial:
All you shit-faced publishers who thought I was finished
who tried to dampen my spirit and cripple my soul
with your lorry loads of rejection slips, watch out!
Time and again, his efforts met with rejection, even lack of acknowledgment. Stunned and increasingly frustrated, he responded with rage at first, then acerbic cynicism, and finally, injured retreat. Further on in the poem, he admits this retreat:
the hibernating bear with real fire in his belly and a bellow
as terrifying as a tornado approaching you in a car
with a broken windscreen along the expressway
somewhere in New Mexico near the Grand Canyon.
I have been sleeping now for seven years...
His hurt was deep, but it was not peculiar. I, too, had given up in many areas and in many ways, and precisely around the same time that he did. First, I gave up poetry, having determined that the themes that drove my poetry no longer held particular interest for me, and, at any rate, stood no chance of taking my efforts into a Western mainstream that elevated mediocrity above serious poetry. I also gave up painting, frustrated as I was with the slow response to my work in Britain, although continental Europe responded quite positively to it. It would be a full decade before I returned to painting.
Irobi and I responded almost the same, and the manner of our reactions goes to illustrate my point about lack of a strategy for survival, and the inhibiting psychology of exile. Since my creative work still enjoyed patronage in continental Europe despite the cold response in Britain, logic would dictate that I leave Britain and move to Germany or Switzerland where I had enthusiastic patrons. Instead, I gave up painting altogether, moved to the United States where I had no patrons or foothold whatsoever, and retreated to the academy and scholarship. In response to the mainstream rejection that initially met his work, Irobi quit trying, retreated to the academy, and after a half decade of misery in Liverpool, he moved to the United States and devoted himself to teaching and scholarship.
We may have fled frustration and persecution at home, but we nonetheless both arrived England with the mind to get through a brief period of studies and then, go back home. We had no game plan for engaging what we would later discover to be a formidable and secretive culture machine that required not simply talent or industry to broach, but tact, wily charm, and the ability to adapt easily and swiftly, also. A certain combination of resilience, persistence, and nimbleness, if you will; even a stomach for mediocrity, also. When the hope of swift return fizzled, our exile minds did not dig in like those who set out to settle would, but instead went into a second exile, Irobi for much longer than I, for, while he gave up playwriting almost entirely and refrained from trying further to place his poetry in the rightful organs of the literary mainstream, I continued to make art and to exhibit internationally, though I determinedly kept away from painting, and have yet to return fully to it. Esiaba Irobi could not adapt.
If the cold shoulder of exile nearly put paid to Irobi's art, his experiences in Liverpool also damaged his health, and by the time he arrived New York in 1997, he was battling chronic blood pressure problems that placed him on constant medication and required exercise and diet regimens. He was still in his mid-30s. He earned little from his job as a professor at New York University, often ran into money troubles, and kept a full and impossibly hectic schedule. Moreover, the job at New York University was on a short-term, renewable contract and therefore not secure, none of which made things any easier. But in New York, he had community outside theatre; he reunited with his kinsmen in the vast New York-New Jersey Igbo Diaspora community, including the family of his late guardian and mentor, Jas Amankulor. This close kingship he had not had during his years in Britain except on his occasional forays into London. In New York it became part of his sustenance and healing even as his art almost ground to a halt. When he moved to Towson, Maryland in 2000 in search of a more secure professorial job, and then, finally, to Ohio University in 2002, he lost that community which sustained him in New York, and his battles with the academy resumed.
In Ohio, he quickly came up against the same collegial resentment and persecution that had poisoned his years in Liverpool back in the '90s and in Nsukka two decades earlier. This all came to a head when his bid for indefinite job tenure at Ohio University was turned down, despite his formidable body of work and his three decades of experience as a teacher. He would expend enormous time and energy both mental and emotional fighting the battle for recognition in Athens. He won that battle, and was granted indefinite tenure, but it was too late. More than two decades of relentless struggle and hardship had taken a great toll on not only his time and focus and creative work, but most sadly, his body as well. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, and thus began the last battle of his life.
This time, he fought without retreat, and he fought on several fronts at once. After months of excruciating chemotherapy during which he was literally bedridden, the tumor went into remission by late 2006, and Irobi swung back to work with an obvious sense of urgency. He traveled to international conferences and delivered papers. He applied for and received fellowships. He bought a beautiful home in Athens that he loved, and a car. And, he renewed efforts to have his scholarship published in book form, a goal that, regrettably, he was never able to meet. In our conversations, he would often repeat the story of another African scholar who, the story goes, wrote his most important book and one of the most significant contributions to contemporary thought after he was diagnosed with cancer, and then, made full recovery and still lives. There was little doubt what was on his mind.
In 2009 Irobi, who'd been single all his life, finally got married at 48, and just as important, he made contact for the first time with the son he had fathered in England in the mid-90s shortly before his relocation to the United States, but had never met. The child was now in his teens. Long a jazz devotee and especially of Miles Davis's music, Irobi had bought a saxophone a few years earlier with the mind to study the instrument, but never made much progress with it. At what would turn out to be their last meeting, he passed the saxophone on to his son.
My last conversation with Esiaba Irobi was in the early fall of 2009. He was getting ready to leave for Berlin where he'd been appointed a fellow at the International Research Center at Freie Universitaet. His proposed project was on "the aesthetics and politics of international performance in the age of globalization". We had discussed his fellowship quite a few times previously, and he was very excited about his project, but also the prospect of leaving Ohio for a year and reinserting himself in the intellectual circles in Europe. However, there was a problem that we could not agree on. In addition to the project he proposed to Freie Universitaet, which he planned to turn into a book, he intimated that he also planned to work on and finish an earlier book project focusing on African American performance, another one focussing on African theatre aesthetics, as well as a book of fiction based on his experiences in Britain that he'd often spoken about for the better part of a decade. All that seemed rather inordinately ambitious for a single year of research leave in Europe, especially for a man who had not only just gotten married, but was also undergoing a fourth course of chemotherapy. I urged him to focus on the project for his fellowship and ensure that it is done, rather than divide his time and attention in a dozen impossible places that meant he would get none of the work finished. As was the norm in our long friendship, he did not seem to take offense, and calmly reassured me that he would get the work done. He could sense my exasperation with what I had begun to consider a chronic lack of focus on his part. He would constantly speak of four or five books he was working on, even often go so far as to list their titles in his biographical entries, complete with dates of publication and names of publishing houses, yet year after year, the books were nowhere near completion or even past proposal stage. I felt rather strongly that if only he would concentrate and focus on one research project at a time, one book at a time, and drive it through, then he would have his books on the shelves and not just as ideas for conversation.
In retrospect, I believe that he shared my frustration, but at that point his understanding of time had gone beyond mine and he'd begun to deal with a different sense of urgency. With his illness becoming less predictable, he'd begun to sense the looming shadow of his own mortality, but he was not about to yield to anxiety and fear. He would live and dream and extrapolate and fantasize as much as always, and he would give his waning energy to as many tasks as his fertile mind commanded, and let the chips fall where they may. He would not allow the fantom of death have dominion over him. So, he was absolutely excited, spoke with genuine joy about his contact with his little boy, and seemed over the moon about his marriage and the impending trip abroad.
Friends who spoke with him later, indicate that gradually they could sense a widening crack in that wall of bravery. He seemed increasingly impatient, and at times, he would betray an effort to come to terms with what must be, and a consequent melancholy. In their conversations and even in his last writings, he began to refer to his late guardian, Dr. Amankulor, who also lost a battle with cancer. Like the royal cavalier that he played in Death and The King's Horseman almost a quarter century earlier, he'd begun to prepare for his journey, although he seemed to hold out hope that, like the cavalier, fate might still intervene at the very last hour, and spare his life.
And so it was that on April 8, 2010 when he and Professor Homi K. Bhabha of Harvard University appeared together as guest speakers on a panel about identity politics at the Dahlem Humanities Center of Freier Universitaet, Esiaba Irobi was his full, ebullient and boisterous self as he sparred with Bhabha and entertained Berlin's intellectual community. A colleague who blogged the event described the exchange between Irobi and Bhabha thus:
Homi Bhabha and Esiaba Irobi were really funny: it was like a high-brow
(maybe not that high) version of Martin and Lewis. But they never really
broke loose and went all out crazy (like Jerry Lewis at his most frenzied).
But still, they gave an indication that there was a way to have fun with
There was little indication that here was a dying man. Exactly three weeks to the day, however, on Thursday, April 29, Irobi came down with an unknown ailment and quickly went into coma. He would never recover. The previous evening he'd spoken to a number of friends in England, each one of whom, it appears, he berated for one reason or another before asking their help in organizing his wedding, which was slated for mid-May in London. At the hospital he was diagnosed with meningitis and placed on life-support. Five days later, on May 3, 2010, his spirit left this world. He left behind the wife that he'd taken with him to Berlin, the teenage soon that he'd only begun to know, his siblings who are scattered around the world, and his numerous, unfinished projects.
Since his passing, Irobi's life has been celebrated in memorial events around the world from Athens, Ohio to London and Abuja, Nigeria. In Nigeria, a literary prize has been named in his memory. Friends and colleagues have written reminiscences and eulogies, and a close friend and colleague has been commissioned to write an official biography. There is already renewed interest in his writings, and even new plays have already been written to commemorate his life and legacy.
The brilliance, bravery, energy and industry that he brought to his work, especially in his late twenties produced one of the most remarkable literary legacies of our time, with no less than a dozen plays and collections of poetry that marked the coming of age of a generation of African writers. His combatant voice and his acerbic humor both charged and humanized a new theatre and literature, and extended a tradition of deeply engaged creative practice on the continent. His boisterous and charming personality, and his erudition endeared him to many around the world. But, his was also a very difficult life plagued by persecution and collegial resentment almost everywhere he worked, and career disappointments that not only belied his enormous talent and accomplishments, but even more regrettably, forced him to retreat from full creative engagement at the height of his powers.
Our exile in the West, beginning at the end of the '80s, saved him from imminent violent confrontation with certain forces in Nigeria, but it also took away from him the very things that were most crucial to his art; an engaged and engaging community, and an appreciative audience. He struggled in Britain to find a place, to get his work out, to locate a space in which to continue to flourish, and when that failed, he relocated to America, yet fate dealt him no easier hand. Exile destroyed his promise, and eventually took his life.
However, in an uncanny yet critical move at the end of the '90s, he placed almost all his extant drama in print and in 2003 published what may now be considered his last testament. Irobi's last collection of poems, Why I Do Not Like Phillip Larkin and Other Poems provides very frank insight to his journey in exile, his frustrations, his losses, but also his numerous loves and fonts of strength, and veritable testimony to his perseverance. Scholars will study his work, and biographers will detail his life, and as long as literature and memory survive, narrators will recall his remarkable journey through remarkable times.
*Oguibe, obviously, was a close friend of the late dramatist and author. In conjunction with the Association of Nigerian Authors, Oguibe recently established a literary prize, the Esiaba Irobi Drama Prize, in Irobi's memory.
Olu Oguibe is an artist and award-winning writer, and was a close friend of the late dramatist and author. In conjunction with the Association of Nigerian Authors, he recently established a literary prize, the Esiaba Irobi Drama Prize, in Irobi's memory.
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