All About Inua Ellams
Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria in 1984 and spent the first 18 years of his life mainly drawing. At first he wanted to be a business man and after drawing loose plans of a city, observing the reactions of his father, he wanted to become an architect. Aged twelve, he left Nigeria to England where a supportive teacher suggested he pursue a career in the visual arts.
He moved to Dublin where the passion for visual art became one of graphic design, which Inua saw as functional visual art. Following the death of a close friend, Inua began using language as a way out of grieving, but it wasn’t until 2002, when Inua returned to London and could no longer afford paint, that he eventually turned to writing believing he could “paint pictures with words”. His first book the critically acclaimed ‘Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales’ was published just three years later – a poetry pamphlet of stories disguised as long poems. He has since published 8 books of poetry and plays, including the Fringe First award winning ‘The 14th Tale’, another pamphlet of poems ‘Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars’ and most recently ‘Black T-Shirt Collection’ – a short illustrated story written for theatre. As well as working in various medium and disciplines, Inua is the founder of the midnight run, an event where he gathers complete strangers to play through the streets of a city from 6pm – 6am, an arts-led journey of urban discovery, from dusk to dawn.
Inua is based in London, United Kingdom, but teaches and works all over the world. For instance, he has travelled with the British Council to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia and Nigeria to name a few – facilitating workshops on poetry, playwriting and many aspects of creative writing.
Inua’s School Visits
Though Inua has a preference for working key stage 3 and upwards, with young people in the transition to young adulthood, Inua has worked with children from key stage 1 right through to University and beyond, working in theatres, libraries and arts festivals. During his visits, he covers various aspects of the writing process in interactive and interesting ways suited to the participants, exercises from free-writing to conceptualisation, to editing, to performance, to creating larger bodies of work. Inua’s personal work engage three major themes: identity (which all young people question), displacement (in various incarnations, from geographic locations, to social mobility and what it means to be part of a group – typical of a young persons experience) and destiny (questions of home, of the future, of the responsibility of one’s actions, again, themes that are live within a young mind). These can be explored in his workshops and often come it in anecdotes he uses to illustrate certain points.
As an introduction to poetry, these are largely fun and interactive exercises built on the principles of group work, listening and speaking. Inua typically will explain and give examples rhyme: half rhymes, end rhymes & full rhymes and divide the group in two and by setting time limits, ask them to compete against each other by generating lists of rhymes. This might be followed by exercises in simile and metaphor, when a simile is more appropriate than another and finally, Inua may guide the group in rewriting a well known nursery rhyme. This can be provided in addition to presentations to larger groups, for instance an assembly, where Inua reads from his favourite book of children poems. Inua is comfortable with working with groups of 25 – 30 at a time.
Primary School Visits
In primary schools, Inua likes to push the students a little further. Typically, Inua will begin by explaining a little about who he is, where he came from, what he does and why he does it, to give a background and context to the workshop. The workshop might begin with interactive games and exercises designed to get the group listening and thinking together. For this key stage, Inua begins with a poetry worksheet of questions which on completion, will provide a complete poem. Alternatively, Inua might read line-by-line instructions to the class which, on completion, will constitute a poem. After the first exercise, Inua will explain that poets are liars who attempt to tell beautiful lies and run further exercises that further designed push their imagination, to imagine objects or places as being made of opposing materials, for instance a desk made of water, or an ocean made of wood. These exercises verging on absurdity are playful and funny, but really push the class to think imaginatively. Finally, Inua likes to invite the students to the front of the class to read their creations to their classmates with a tiny compliment/critique session where classmates can explain what they liked about the poem and what might need a little more work.
Inua is flexible and, as the exercises range in degrees of difficulty, will choose what is challenging and suited to the group. A short presentation can be provided to the whole school at the start of the day.
Secondary School Visits
A whole school presentation can be provided at the start of the day where Inua can talk about his journey, reading poems along the way to illustrate certain moments in his life. This works particularly well with older groups and can be a ten-minute to hour long presentation. He can show films of poems, trailers for plays and film footage of Midnight Runs.
Following this whole school presentation, Inua will work with individual class groups. If the space is large enough, Inua may begin with movement games that require students to move about, but in a classroom typically, the workshop will begin with speaking and listening games to unify the group, followed by a ‘freewrite’ – an exercise where the students generate a list of word, pluck a random starting sentence from the air and begin writing. Inua explains at the start of this short exercise that spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphs… all those are irrelevant, all you have to do is write.
The starting line could be “I’ll never forget” or “If I had one wish” or “Remember when” which will prompt a host of memories from the students. After the free writes, Inua could ask them to circle certain lines and develop these into longer pieces of writing. Inua has a bag of workshops and various poem conceits at all time that explore various aspects of writing poetry: rhyme, simile, metaphor, imagery, the five sense, etc, but Inua likes to listen, to ask questions and to work from the preoccupations of the students. For instance, in the past, Inua has taught history lessons using postcards as a device to create very short 1st person narratives (which is a description of poetry). He has taught intense descriptive writing using photographs as a starting point, narrative poetry using articles from newspapers as a starting point.
The sessions are interactive and can be extended or truncated, flexible to the childrens and the teachers need. Inua likes to finish by inviting the students to the front of the class to read their creations to their classmates with a tiny compliment/critique session where classmates can explain what they liked about the poem and what might need a little more work.
From Candy Coated Unicorns & Converse All Stars:
The day I discovered how she survived the civil war,
how she saw her friends pass like minutes into oblivion,
how she screamed through drop zones and Morse codes
into jungle, dodging bullets, hiding and crying into rain,
the day I discovered my grandfather heard her wailing,
felt something enough to move him after her, in darkness,
through rain, how her eyes, found in the flickering bounce
of hurricane lamps, showed a place so pure, he sailed her
away to the embrace of Paris, the kiss of Rome, the world
with its wide welcoming dome. The day I discovered this,
why she called him hero, she died. Peacefully, 90 years old.
He followed an hour after, again into darkness.
All those years, he never let go. That day, I realised we live
in different worlds; friends pass too fast for minutes, wars
come after X Factor, turtle dove romances exist in the past.
But I will send one sentence to you. One text message
screaming through wifi zones, digital codes, dodging
ones and zeros, like bullets and anti-heroes, promising
if evr ur lst n ths urbn jngle,
i’ll fnd n brng u in frm rain.
From The 14th Tale:
I’m from a long line 0f trouble makers,
of ash skinned Africans, born with clenched fists
and a natural thirst for battle, only quenched by
breast milk. They’d suckle as if the white silk sliding
between gums were liquid peace treaties written
from mums. Their small thumbs would dimple
soft mounds of brown flesh, goose-pimpling chests
till the ceasefire of sleep would creep into eyes;
they’d keep till the moon set and wake twice hungry,
twice vexed, raring to go. Grandfather, six yrs old
tough, scatterbrained as all boys should, once
in a gathering of tribes, crawled under tables past
the feet of tribal chiefs, surfaced by the serving
dishes, cupped his hands together, began shovelling
the special treat of fried goose meat into his mouth.
When the cry of “thief! thief!” rang out, he turned
wondering who had such audacity, to find an angry
line of village cooks coming his way. With his face
still stained with the spiced juice of diced goose,
he grabbed another handful and fled into the dark
woods chased by dogs, siblings and abuse. They say
he ran so fast, the ground gasped, forgot to take
footprints; they lost him in the fields. But the story
never left memory, was told around campfires and
followed his son (my father) to school where a trend
of long nicknames was maximised by a senior boy
who thumbed through a text book’s index, added
Periplaneta Americana – most elaborate he could
find, to Nevada his old title and swaggered through
halls slapping younger boys for mispronouncing
the name. Once from a crowd gathered at lunch,
Periplaneta Nevada struck six boys till rebelling
against seniority, my father revealed the title was
Latin for Nevadan cockroach. The crowd laughed
as Nevada chased father who tripped him through
a thorn bush and the long line of trouble makers
meets me, inheritor of fast feet and contempt
for authority, who, try as I might to break the line
have battled adults, been chased through schools,
have climbed out more windows than burglars do.
I wonder what story will reach my son, wonder
more what he will do.
From Black T-Shirt Collection:
Sheikh Farhat is 56 and thinks he has seen everything. He presents a stern countenance and hides his good humour and weak chin beneath a thick beard that most people see through. He is too quick to smile and the Egyptian sun twinkles his eyes too much. He has lost one son, so, he is partial to lost boys wandering the cobbled-stone alleys and old architecture of Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s biggest market. He is a carpet seller here and loves the flow of money, the back and forth of haggling, the smell of all currencies, says his finger holds the pulse of the world; he loves what he does with an unmatched passion; he is in charge of two streets, this one and the next. He knows them intimately, Warsan’s stall of rare spices, the young men who play backgammon all day. The con-men with tacky souvenirs for the British, how slips of the Khamsin, the desert wind, twirls thin scarves Huwaidah sells and Mahmoud, further back who snoozes all day jumps when sand grains twang his instruments – Voice of an angle – Farhat murmurs – You should hear his call to prayer – Farhat sits cross legged among his carpets to watch his world walk by.
– and –
Matthew speaks into the coming dusk that strides across the sky, crouches on the buildings, a thousand lights in El-Khalilli glow. They don’t live here anymore. Matthew misses it. 18 months since they first arrived and the Black T-shirt business is alive! Their shirts are sought after by high-street shops whose staff come all the way here to the Khan. Muhammed’s hired staff to meet their demands. They own six stalls now scattered through the market and Matthew’s light touch humbles everyone: limited edition calligraphic writings of Quranic verses or Rumi’s poems. Anti-government icons, edges sharp as blades, yet supple as water. For the brave ones, bold statements in English and in Arabic: flower-like inscriptions that seem aflame; they blaze in the eyes of the Cairo youth. Their clientele go from the street kids to rich offspring of Egypt’s elite who ask ‘Matt & Mo’ to parties thrown for what reasons they conjure; their job is to sew t-shirts stitched for the night’s wild soul. Typically, those nights, Matthew doesn’t go, prefers to stay alone in the Zamalek district, in the low lit apartment they’d come to call home. Now and then Matthew called Halima, but the line had gone from engaged to dead. He’d stay hunched over, white sheets about him, sketching ideas quick as they come; his shelves are lined with art books, couple on sculpture, in height order they stand up tall, like an installation he curates these walls, flicks through them daily, learns from them all.
Reviews and Recommendations
The Scotsman on the 14th Tale:
“At four-years-old, he short-circuited his home with a silver spoon and a Betamax video player. 1989: stopped a 700-strong student assembly with a tantrum. 1995: was chased through jungle growth by a crazed, frustrated French teacher called Monsieur Batcock…Misfit? Apparently – until a little family research reveals a pattern of mischief reaching as far back as a great grandfather, and so the story begins: I’m from a long line of trouble makers, of ash skinned Africans, born with clenched fists and a natural thirst for battle only quenched by breast milk. They’d suckle as if the white silk sliding between gums were liquid peace treaties from mums. In ‘The 14th Tale’, Inua vividly describes the exploits of a natural-born mischief growing from clay streets in Nigeria to roof tops in Dublin – and, finally, to heartbreak in London. “A sharp reminder of the power of language and rhythm” — The Scotsman
“Original, experimental, beautiful” –Culture Wars
Time Out on Black T-Shirt Collection:
“It’s like Daedalus and Icarus re-imagined in consumer capitalist terms, with their eventual downfall coming in a Chinese fabric factory… Ellams has an easy, laid-back charisma and pares poetic flair for narrative with admirable restraint. The wordsmith remains present, though, and his sentences, with their sophisticated flavour and texture combinations, can be something of a Michelin-starred mouthful…. you sink into his storytelling. 4 stars” –Time Out
‘It was a very refreshing and interactive session where the participants were completely put to ease. It is definitely worth remembering! It was an amazing experience I enjoyed the workshop thoroughly and would love to be informed about similar events. I really enjoyed the workshop. I learnt a lot as a teacher. The workshop was well constructed and planned, the interactions were balanced.’ – Workshop Participant, India
‘It was simply rejuvenating a great experience to unleash our creative thoughts and understand the meaning of words beyond the words themselves. It was amazing metaphor and imagery are two difficult things to use we are writing, I surely learnt a few tricks.’ – Workshop Participant, India.
To Make a Booking
To make an enquiry about Inua Ellams, or any of the other authors, poets & illustrators listed on this website, please phone Trevor Wilson on +44 (0) 1535 656015, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org