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Inua Ellams:
Creating space to get lost

It's A Long Story

Sydney Opera House

Born in Nigeria to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, Inua Ellams fled with his family at age 12 to the UK. He spent his youth in London, then Dublin, then London again, and has said that his teenage years were characterised by perpetual crises of identity. Inua spent his life creating art, writing poetry, and going on long walks through the city. While everyone else was sleeping, he was searching for some sense of identity. This episode of It’s a Long Story is hosted by Marc Fennell.

 
“My name is Inua Marc Mohamed Onore de Ellams, the Second. And as a child, initially I wanted to be Optimus Prime."

Optimus Prime

"My name is Inua Marc Mohamed Onore de Ellams, the Second. And as a child, initially I wanted to be Optimus Prime, and then I think I also wanted to be Bumblebee, but definitely Optimus Prime had the edge, and then I wanted to be a town planner.

"I went to boarding school. My father travelled a lot. He had a degree from Nautica University, we were middle class typical Nigerian family. I grew up with Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson ... I was sort of plugged into the global world."

Nigeria

"Nigeria was an interesting place, politically, socially, the same things that happen here that happen in the UK were happening there. The gap between the rich and the poor was widening, we distrusted our politicians. Things were a little bit more visceral then, because there was lots of violence and there was a dictatorship disguised as a sort of military—slash democratic—rule.

"I left because my father married a Christian. He was a Muslim at the time, and in the place we lived in Northern Nigeria, that wasn't so welcome."

 

 
“I left because my father married a Christian ... in the place we lived in Northern Nigeria, that wasn't so welcome.”

Dublin

"Dublin was in its infancy regarding race relations. They just didn't know, they hadn't met people of African origin. They were just going through the motions of that, so a lot of the racism I faced came from ignorance, rather than malice. It just came from people who didn't really know things, and they were afraid of things they didn't know, and they digested so much of British elitism and American racism.

"I remember my very first English class. They were reading Catcher in the Rye, and people were taking turns to read pages. I raised my hand offering to read, and the whole class started laughing because they didn't think I could, including my English teacher. So that's something. You know, walking through shopping malls, and having mustard squirted at me, my jacket, cycling home, having people shoulder charge me off my bike, off the pavement. Walking through hallways at school and having kids just shout the N-word at me ... People asking my twin sister if she got her period like normal people do, you know, those kinds of things."

Pretending to pee

"The moment I realised the fallacy of race was when my boys and I ran out of the classroom, we didn't ask for permission, we just bunked, skipped the lesson, and were hiding out in the toilets, and we began pretending to pee ... So my closest friend is a guy called Jack, he pretended, then I pretended, then this Chinese boy called Louie, also pretended to pee. He could barely speak English, so lots of our communication was gesture ... and when he finished, he did something which only I did, where he pretended to shiver and I thought, 'Whoa! Wait, wait, wait, that's—like, you have that shiver? That's crazy.'

And he looked as different from me as I thought anyone physically could. He had much paler skin, his hair was long, wispy and dark, and mine was all curly and short, he was skinnier than I am, my skin was pretty dark at the time, I wore glasses, he didn't wear glasses, we dressed differently. I'm just thinking, 'Despite all of these things, you shiver like I do.'"

Inua Ellam's Barber Shop Chronicles plays Sydney Festival from 18 - 28 Jan.

 
“I'm just thinking despite all of these things, you shiver like I do."

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