At age 62, I find that my once disparate interests in the sciences, communication and creative writing are now finding a happy union in semiotics or iconology. I am childishly fascinated by the generative and transformative power of metaphors, and in imitation of Shakespeare, I am tempted to say that the whole world and all of life are big coloring books, and all artists, philosophers, and scientists are like wide-eyed children searching for patterns among the dots. The quest to which my writing has been dedicated, whether in adult novels or children’s books, is to discover and hold out to readers intriguing patterns I find in my own life and experiences across cultures and disciplines. I believe that just as Albert Einstein found a pattern and devised a formula which caused a revolution in science, a writer can craft a metaphor so powerful that it unleashes a revolution in the social and political arena, comparable to what Einstein did in physics. One of the most exciting things I have done recently is to host an international conference on creative writing across cultures. Theme: Creative Writing in English by Non-native Speakers. Translingualism — living and writing (or creating other forms of art) across cultures is a growing trend on the world scene, as artists nowadays live and create much more across cultures and art forms than they did in the past. As an African who has spent most of his adult life abroad, and as an Igbo native who writes in English, I am engaged in the pursuit of metaphor as a type of inter-cultural meta-language.
In what sense, was my father a storyteller?
In the sense that his contemporaries regarded him as onu nekwuru oha, (a mouthpiece for the community), an orator, consensus weaver and verdictcrafter, someone with a keen eye and a large memory – someone who, from a relatively young age, knew the histories and genealogies of the village and maintained within easy recall a vast memory of cases previously adjudicated by the village assembly. Someone adept at language, who could readily summon a virtual “encyclopedia” of proverbs and anecdotes with which he could knit and bind the disparate and seemingly centrifugal elements of a situation into a tapestry of “common sense” that astonished an audience by its ostensible obviousness, and had his listeners grunting and nodding assent or cheering enthusiastically. Papa was known as oji onu egbu orji, a man who could cut down an iroko tree with his tongue, a forensic negotiator…
Just as Shakespeare said that the world is a stage, and people actors, Igbo people of generations past treated life as a story – a single, unbroken story, woven from the real and unreal, from memory and imagination, with a big story for the tribe or clan, and hundreds of smaller stories for towns, villages, families and individuals. What is now commonly called the “oral tradition” is a journal of the times maintained by non-literate people. It is arched, deliberate and circumspect – full of proverbs and oblique allusion – part of a tradition wherein truth is couched not in assertive statements or in propositions but in metaphors and proverbs and parables. A la Aesop. A la Jesus! It tends to define truth not as a fixed point but an orbital, what I like to call the orbital of truth, a probability space, where truth is likely to be found – what theologian Sallie MacFague calls truth in “soft focus”.
Remembering and recording may be mere journalism or history, and interpretation may be no more than clever academic exercise. However art happens, a piece of wood becomes imbued with transcendent meaning. How does a piece of wood become a mace or a gavel or a staff of authority? How does a stone become an idol or totem, or a leather pouch a talisman? By becoming imbued with meaning, whether sacred, secular or social. In the mind and imagination of a good storyteller or artist, mundane events and occurrences are woven into the fabric of the unending story of life, as it were by magic. This ability to elevate or levitate ordinary things and events into a supra-ordinary plane is what makes a storyteller/writer/artist kin to the priest.