Inside Fiction: Rotimi Babatunde

by Basit Jamiu

Rotimi Babatunde is a Nigerian writer and playwright. In 2012, he won the Caine Prize for his short story “Bombay’s Republic.” Basit Jamiu spoke to him about his story on Enkare Review this week, his writing process, and things in between.

INTERVIEWER

The Collected Tricks of Houdini is an amazing story rich in the use of language, history, and development. Were the tone and the structure of the story clear to you as you were working on it?

ROTIMI BABATUNDE

Unlike some of my other stories, ‘The Collected Tricks of Houdini’ had its genesis in the idea of a character and not that of a narrative. The character of Hannibal got me laughing even before composition began, and it was while thinking about his possible escapades that the story’s narrative arc manifested. The nature of the central character also necessitated the story’s playful tone and its freewheeling, picaresque texture. During the writing process, I had to let the sentences flow with more abandon than usual, but by several edits later, I had excised roughly half of the words in the initial draft, leaving behind only what I considered the work’s distilled essence.

INTERVIEWER

What are the influences that society, background and class have on the development of Hannibal as a character?

ROTIMI BABATUNDE

Though Hannibal promoted some of the dominant ideological trends of his time, he also denounced those same positions at other times. So he was influenced by society and he influenced it in turn. While he was a beneficiary of the privileges of his background and class, which afforded him the space to pursue his ideological adventures, he was also a rebel against those privileges. At every point in the story, Hannibal is potentially an advocate of any ideology and a rebel against all ideologies. The manner in which he simultaneously embodies conformity and freedom was one of the things that made him interesting as a character to me.

INTERVIEWER

In the story, there is a vicious cycle between democracy and military, between socialism and capitalism. Can third world countries achieve stability? Will they?

ROTIMI BABATUNDE

Many of the countries you’re referring to were cobbled together by colonisers from Europe. Sitting down to discuss and resolve the fundamental dysfunctions in the systems passed on to them by their colonisers would be helpful. However, I must add that all nations are inherently unstable—it’s just the degree of visibility of that instability to the citizenry of each country that differs. See how the charade that is the Trump presidency has bared the fault lines of the American system. As the French intellectual Ernest Renan observed a long time ago, a nation is a ‘daily referendum’.

INTERVIEWER

Who is your favorite fictional hero/ heroine/antihero or villain?

ROTIMI BABATUNDE

Lisa and Bart Simpson satisfy all the categories in your question, if spiky-haired imps and their sisters count.

INTERVIEWER

I am curious whether there is any particular book or film or TV show or piece of music you’d been reading or watching or listening to recently.

ROTIMI BABATUNDE

I’ve been listening to some old favourites with connections to the Iberian Peninsula like Concha Buika, Amália Rodrigues and Radio Tarifa. And also to Brazilian musicians like Jorge Aragão, Beth Carvalho and the recently deceased Almir Guineto. Not long ago, I had the privilege of writing an introduction to the anthology Work Naija: The Book of Vocations. Engaging with the works of contributors to that anthology was refreshing.

(c) Enkare Review, 2017

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