‘I hadn’t noticed whilst dazed
What he had designed.
Trapped by a million words or more
A lexical prisoner. I was confined.’
The above lines from Ibukun’s illustrated story The Battle of the Wordsmiths, the first part of the Wild Kingdom series are quite indicative. The small illustrated volume flows poetically at a symbolic level, narrating the embattled moments in the life of a young boy. The lovely get up of the book and the superb black and white illustrations by Joanne Nethercott are likely to mask the primordial level at which the symbolic narrative moves, reminding one of the African Grio – the live storytellers from rural Africa or the kathavachaks nearer home from the Indian folk tradition. It is the kind of narrative where the prose-poetry – music distinctions blur and everyday realities merge into the mythical vastness populated by shadowy figures, blurring and sharpening at every turn of the tale.
Recently, a fairly long conversation with the author, on his way to the Jaipur Literary festival, revealed a life story replete with the theme of loss and recovery. Born in England, Ibukun was abandoned by his African parents early in life and grew up in England with a series of white foster parents. At the age of 18 he decided that he must unravel his past, a decision that took him back to Nigeria and his Yoruba folk where he found his father, numerous uncles and aunts and eventually even a step sister. At the raw age of 18 he thus had to reconstruct the meaning of simple givens of life like family and belonging, something we generally take for granted as inherited memory.
Ibukun’s account during the interview, despite its undercurrents sounded like an elaboration on a somewhat atypical resume. Perhaps and one can only say perhaps, Ibukun’s undercurrents is what completely takes over in the book transporting us to the Yoruba land and transforming a personal, parochial tale into a cosmic occurrence. Ibukun is a trained film maker and has worked as a librettist and a designer of games. His narrative carried the playfulness of folk tales and the adventurous intensity of some of the more engaging games in the popular culture of today. In his book, the echoes from traditional African mythologies merge with the urban myths dreamt up in our time.
Ibukun’s tale in what purports to be the first volume in the Wild Kingdom series, seems to collapse the birth, growth, adolescence and the reconstruction of life into one – there is a self that is learning to survive the odds and there is the other self that is busily constructing its life story by fashioning its own language, avoiding the many pitfalls and tricks that inherited languages necessarily bring along. Which is why the writer must break out of the ‘lexical prison’.
Unlike other Africans met earlier, Ibukun has had to rediscover Africa for himself nearly from scratch. Such explorations can be agonising in themselves and more so when one if left alone to perform the job at the fraught age of eighteen.
Ibukun has however come a long way and has a longer way to go along with the forthcoming volumes in the series.