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“Migration is our oldest, earliest and best bad habit”: A fascinating chat with Inua Ellams

Inua Ellams is an incredible man with an incredible story.

When he was just 12-years of age, he and his family fled Nigeria in fear of religious persecution – ending up in London, and then Dublin.

Since then he’s carved out a varied and a staggeringly storied career for someone who’s barely in their 30s.

He’s an award-winning poet, theatremaker, playwright and performer. He’s published four books and crafted plays that have toured the world.

Ellams powerfully explores themes of identity, displacement, and race with a striking passion that cuts deep.

Now finds himself on our little island to perform his highly-acclaimed show, An Evening With An Immigrant, at the Sydney Opera House on September 3 as part of the Antidote festival.

How the hell did you end up drinking wine with the Queen? What was she like!?

The first inversion to Buckingham Palace time was a gathering for folks working in the performing arts… the second time, for folks working in poetry. Both times, we didn’t really get to chat.

I was largely incidental to her, a whiff in the wind, and one of many. We just formed queues and shook her hand. She has a good grip on her… I’ve had far limper handshakes… but

I paid more attention to Prince Phillip. I kept hoping he would say something racially or culturally offensive as he has in the past, so I would sell my story to a tabloid newspaper and donate the cash to the Labour Party.

What’s the main message you want people to get out of ‘An Evening With An Immigrant’?

That migration is our oldest, earliest and best bad habit, that without it we, none of us would exist, that those who leave their countries of birth do so mostly for varied, nuanced and desperate reasons. That sometimes, grinding poverty is the shotgun held to your head and it is as valid a reason to leave as any other. That “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark”.

That there are 65 million displaced peoples on earth right now, the entire population of Great Britain, the largest since the 2nd world war, and we as a global human community are not doing enough to help.

That politicians are putting profit before people, and we should show them our better natures.
What can people expect from your show? Do people have to love poetry to enjoy it, or could poetry ‘novices’ (for want of a better word) get something out of it as well?

I think folks should come expecting to be entertained – that is primarily my job as a performer – to laugh, perhaps to cry, to learn a few things about this crazy world, to hear a ridiculous story, and to buy a few poetry books after.. I have some to sell. You do not need to know anything about poetry… just bring your ears…

Why did your family flee Nigeria? How much of it do you remember?

For this, you will have to come to the show.

It is a simple reason, especially if you live in parts of Northern Nigeria at the moment, but I shan’t give the answer here. I don’t remember much in great detail, just the big chunks, just the highlights … and as neurologists and cross examiners have proven time and time again… memory is a curious and unreliable thing. When we “remember” things, we are remembering the last time we remember, and layer by layer, we crystallise memories that might feel entirely different to what was experienced.

There was lots of laughter and excitement at the time, but now I see the trauma of what happened and that is what I “remember” now.

Do you feel like you’ve found a “home” in the UK? What’s your experience been growing up as Nigerian boy and man in London?

Home is my flat, and the circle of friends I have. All else is geography… the second half of your question… you will have to come to the show. Sorry, I can’t cheat my audiences by giving the game away here.

About the author

Riordan is Techly’s News and Social Editor. He promises to tweet more at @riordanl

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