In a landscape saturated by artists whose preoccupation is the present, Lanaire Aderemi’s art makes alliances with the past, and pays due obeissance to those who have touched hearts with stories way before her own existence. She recognizes those who influence her art and is not shy to heap accolades on them.
Lanaire’s art defies borders and tags, preferring to “dance with words” like the poet should. Through her art, I find her performing reconnaissance where she brings the past and present onto the page, or stage, evaluating and reconsidering instances through the fellowship of her audience. Those who she tells me “become storytellers even if they did not enter the room as one.”
Even after the performance, the poet’s words and carriage lingers. I had the pleasure of catching up with her over email to hold this conversation wherein she speaks about her identity, influences and how her work in sociology interferes with her poetry.
What does it mean to be a Nigerian Poet?
Lanaire Aderemi: I think that’s a very interesting question. Interesting because to be a Nigerian poet can mean many things. Is that a poet from Nigeria? A poet born in Nigeria? A poet who writes about Nigeria? A poet who is concerned about Nigeria? As a writer who draws from a range of fields such as pan-Africanism and black feminism, I see borders as artificial and malleable technologies and throughout history not only have borders shifted but they have a way of doing the violence.
Years ago, when Nigeria did not exist, I would not have been considered Nigerian. Tomorrow, I might not be Nigerian. There are poets who made Nigeria their priority and became stateless or were exiled because they noticed injustice and spoke against it. So, I think this question is very complicated. I can go on and on about bordering, citizenship, and nations and its falseness.
I like that the question asks what a poet is. I think the poet dances with words. I love Audre Lorde’s definition of poetry as a distillation of experience. I think the poet must first observe and then distill the experience they witness. So poetry presents many possibilities, many kinds of dancing. I think the most valuable description of the poet is the person that notices. I have always understood the poet as an observer – the person in the room who notices.
The poets I admire have been dancing with words for a long time. These words are in homes, books, songs, protest chants, proverbs, side comments. Of course, Black poets throughout history have written back to the empire but it has required a different kind of notice. To be a poet is to pay attention and to notice.
The subjects you examine in your poetry tend to lean toward themes like Nigerian Feminist history, the politics of memory, and its resistance. I am curious about what informs your interest in those topics.
Lanaire Aderemi: I hate erasure. There are different ways Nigerian women throughout history are erased and continue to be erased. When I was in year 9, I remember during a General Studies class, I was sitting in the front row with the textbook we all had to have which had everything to do with the ‘nation’ and nothing to do with women’s contributions to nation-making. I remember my teacher had described a group of women who resisted anti-colonial taxation as rebellious. I was only 13 then but the word ‘rebel’ both scared and fascinated me. I saw a Tik Tok about how Disney gives villains lines that reflect women’s reality but patriarchal conditioning makes us hate these women. This teacher was doing something similar by calling the women rebellious because, in secondary school, girls were conditioned to never challenge the status quo.
I think the teacher’s way of describing these women we were to forget about interested me. I became so interested in their lives. I was interested in how they organised and the methods of their own kind of dance. In my first year of university, I decided to apply to be a part of a playwriting festival. I knew little about writing scripts but I studied plays. This play which was selected was messy but it had the right heart.
I was trying to challenge people to think of why certain histories, stories and voices are erased. The play was well received. 300 people came. Shortly after, I gained a residency at the Birmingham Rep Theatre and developed the play through mentorship and months of workshops. My grandmother was a child when she witnessed the Egba Market Women’s revolt but she had vivid memories of the movement. As I wove her quotes into the story and other quotes from research papers, I started to feel the violence of this erasure. It is violent for 10,000 women to be erased or unnamed and my work was trying to retell their story whilst interrogating this epistemic violence.
Your one-woman play of poetry and music draws inspiration from Audre Lorde’s line: ‘your silence will not protect you.’ What does silence mean to you and how do you navigate it?
Lanaire Aderemi: I navigate silence by either sitting with it or speaking at it. Audre Lorde has this beautiful essay which I frequently turn to call The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action. I often think in maths so I translated the title of her essay into an equation. By the way, in physics, there’s a triangle symbol that means change and that change represents a verb that might ironically trigger the action.
To me, Audre Lorde was saying this :
transformation=change / Δ
action= performance in any form
So if the rules above are true, I navigate the silence by changing the silence to something tangible or intangible. That could mean historicizing Nigerian feminists’ acts of resistance and display of solidarity through a 10,000-word dissertation; or changing the silence of the theatre into interaction through call and response, another language, or tweeting my drafted thoughts and listening to the distinctive chorus which has its own unique modalities and tonalities in this digital space.
All these transformations are done with an awareness that whilst silence might feel comfortable and convenient, it is not what is best in the long term for people who desire liberation – “it will not protect us.” But I recognize that there are times that require silence, hence why I said, I also sit with it.
How does your work in sociology interfere with what you do as a poet on the page and stage?
Lanaire Aderemi: Sociology has provided me with names. There is something so beautiful about knowing that what you feel has a name. Studying sociology gave me the opportunity to articulate what I felt with nuance and also understand that it’s okay if the theorizing is still in our minds and hearts. I am also more aware of how complicated power is and as a storyteller, I try my best to interrogate its functions in my work. I am a lot more aware of how methods and tools produce hierarchies of knowledge and inadvertently oppress. I think both the sociologist and the poet have observed in common but I now have the language to articulate what I felt, witnessed, or heard.
You are creating a vibrant storytelling platform with Story Story, the festival you champion. With it, you intend to support storytellers from writers to poets. How much influence did African lore contribute to this?
Lanaire Aderemi: Thank you so much. Story Story’s aim is to equip storytellers with the tools needed to share their stories with the world. It is made of diverse art forms from poetry to music to visual art. The teacher is also a storyteller so we will be hosting workshops and open conversations that will nurture storytellers.
From an early age, I noticed that the storyteller was surrounded by people. Whether it was a play at Terra Kulture or a concert at Muson, the storyteller’s words were shared for people on stage and off stage to witness. This co-production of knowledge is also in the little things. When the person opens the testimony with “Praise the Lord,” they expect the “Hallelujah,” or when the talking drummer beats the drum, the Bata dancers respond through dance. So a lot of storytelling in Africa centers on community and collaboration whilst fostering creativity and the Story Story festival is run by this ethos.
Story Story started with my mum. When I was young, she told my sister and I stories before we would sleep and these stories were all made up. I remember the story about the chicken who transformed into a biscuit which I retold during my play An Evening With Verse Writer, so I think firstly, I recognize the contribution of women as storytellers. Women have always told stories but not all women who tell stories are remembered. I draw a lot of inspiration from African feminist scholarship and the ways in which as Nnaemoka Obioma recounts we practice theory and theorize practice I think understanding the ways in which theory informs my practice and vice versa has reminded me to always cite and name of those that have come before me which is why I said earlier that Story Story starts with my mum.
A lot of African stories are transmitted orally and collaboratively. We remember the tortoise and the hare because it was spoken to us through storytelling. In addition, the story was often told in groups. So I think this way of storytelling which centers on community reminds me to treasure collective storytelling. I will not be where I am if not for God and the storytellers around me. Some of them might not even call themselves storytellers but they co-produced knowledge that enriched me.
In my performances, I draw from the Black tradition of storytelling, for example, through the use of call and response and audience participation. I believe in undoing things, tearing them apart, and rebuilding if necessary, and I invite the audience to do so with me. So in An Evening With Verse Writer which is out on the 7th of February, you will notice that everybody in the room becomes a storyteller even if they did not enter the room as one.
In 2017, you told Culture Custodian that you intend to “stir hearts” with your work. What has that been like? `
Lanaire Aderemi: Poetry has brought me so much joy. I have seen people laugh and cry at the same time. It has come with a wonder. I think people like that I am able to skillfully place poetry with other art forms so in that way I think my work has challenged people to think of new ways of seeing and doing. It’s been shocking. I started writing at 8 and I wrote because I loved writing. I would never have thought that poems I wrote after years of practice would make up an award-winning play called An Evening With Verse Writer and now my debut film Evening With Verse Writer: A Documentary by Lanaire Aderemi. I’m glad that God’s gift to me has done something good for people.