‘It was difficult settling in to Dublin, dealing with racism and ignorance’

London based with a schooling in Dublin's Firhouse Community College behind him, Nigerian poet Inua Ellams presents a punchy portrait of an immigrant

Summoning the spirit of classical literature and head noddin' hip hop in equal parts, Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams cuts a distinct oeuvre. Yet an important point in the genesis of his show An Evening With an Immigrant happened in the improbable backdrop of the Dublin suburb of Firhouse.

Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother in the city of Jos, Ellams and his family moved to England when he was 12. Three years later they headed to Ireland, where young Inua spent three formative years that would help shape his artistic outlook.

“When I started school in Ireland, I was the only black boy in the entire school,” says Ellams, now 32. “Initially, it was difficult settling in, trying to find a place and dealing with the racism and the ignorance, more so than direct racism. But when I did I found a really close, tightknit group of friends. Entirely, my career as a writer and as an artist came from that period.”

In a story that dials your mind back to so many coming-of-age dramas, Ellams drew his artistic strength from one chief adult influence. While attending Firhouse Community College, he met Senan Nolan, who doubled as the young student's poetry teacher and basketball couch.


“It baffled me that these two worlds could exist in this one man,” says Ellams. “I think that’s when I stopped thinking of my interests as extremes, and I realised I could unify them in some why. I just began to accept myself. My whole career as a writer came from the way he taught us English through rigour, the enthusiasm, and the joy he brought to dissecting poetry.”

Shifting into a psychological lane that would lead him to a career as a writer happened in just one night, Ellams says, when during a walk home he pulled together all the necessary elements in his mind. “I dialed into being exactly who I wanted to be – be this weird artistic, hybrid freak. Things changed very rapidly after that.”

Barbed and loaded

An Evening With An Immigrant (which will be performed at The Complex in Dublin on May 20th) charts Ellams geographical and spiritual journey through poems, stories and anecdotes. In an era when the word "immigrant" has become barbed and loaded, Ellams strips away the typecasting to present one punchy portrait. Although elements of the show have been informed by the British immigration system, the writer believes the themes resonate beyond his home nation's borders – borders that will soon be beef-up post-Brexit.

“The political aspect of the show – and I say that with a small ‘p’ – will speak more to British audiences than Irish audiences,” Ellams admits. “But other than that, it will stay the same. It’s just as universal, particular for those who live in the west. I performed the show in Australia and they’ve a horrendous immigration system. Everything I was saying even hit home harder than it did the British audience.”

Ellams' body of work includes a number of poetry books and an autobiographical play, The 14th Tale. The first iteration of An Evening With an Immigrant came together speedily. Performed as a one-off, Ellams was encouraged by the response, particularly from one journalist who helped him see the political aspect of the story he was telling. A second draft was penned. Then, according to the artist, "everything began to happen".

“The migration crisis that the west is currently facing – which isn’t really a crisis, it’s just how the media spun it – has deepened,” says Ellams. “Stories of immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean began to swamp headlines. Brexit happened. Immigrants began getting attacked on the streets of London. The rise of nativism and nationalism began to grip. All of that has made the show incredibly political, though that was never my intention.”

The tide

Ellams is upbeat about the future, citing pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron's victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the recent French presidential election as a sign that the recent wave of nationalism in western politics may be about to roll back on itself.

“There are good signs that suggest that the breaks are coming on slowly on that rise of xenophobic sentiment. Most of the populations are beginning to realise the political ramifications of letting these sentiments fester and grow in our communities and how problematic they are. And how they do now represent most of the views of everyday people. I think that suggests that the tide, if not turned, it is at least turning.”

Ellams’ Dublin homecoming will also include The RAP Party, or Rhythm and Poetry Party, at the Liquor Rooms on May 22nd. It’s a nostalgic night of hip hop-inspired poems and classic rap songs where poets celebrate the culture.

“The three years I spent in Dublin came at a pivotal time in my life,” he says. “They were really important, the last days of being a teenager, a child. It really affected my identity in the sense I grew up in the Irish consciousness. The mild [contempt] we have against Britain, even though I now live in London, that stayed with me. The Irish craic, always looking for the best out of situations, the humour… I found deep similarities and parallels with what it means to be a Nigerian.

“All of that really came to inform my worldview. And to this day, I think a little bit of my soul is Irish.”

Inua Ellams is Artist in Residence for International Literature Festival Dublin running from May 20th to 29th. ilfdublin.com