This week's guest is Uko Bendi Udo. His fiction and feature articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world, and his short stories have been published in AfroSF, Naija Stories, African Roar 2012 and the brand new (and very, very good) The Apex Book of World SF 3.
Uko shares five of his inspirations - the sounds and words and places that have influenced his work.
Paul Dean wrote like a miki fiki. You don’t know him? I believe you. During the 90’s, Paul Dean wrote car reviews for the Los Angeles Times, and I’m not even sure he’s still alive. But boy, did he get me juiced those mornings I needed something other than coffee to get me going. I was something of an anomaly when I went to college (I think in more ways than one, but that’s another write-up). While every other college hombre bursting with college-boy hormones and inappropriate dose of sexual fantasies only read the sports pages of newspapers, I read everything. Yap, including the car review sections, and I wasn’t even into cars. I knew how to get the chicks without the cars, and so having one was not an issue.
Where was I? Yeah, Paul Dean.
Paul Dean wrote with an attitude. No word was wasted. When I read his reviews, it was like talking to a drinking buddy who knew everything about cars and could cut through the façade or BS – like that. He got my attention very quickly, and he kept me in his grip until he was done. And the cool thing about it was that he had such a vast vocabulary that he could employ words from either side of the street, fancy or gritty. At the end of it all, did I end up liking cars more as a result of reading Paul Dean? Maybe. But I sure as heck wanted to write like him, and I looked forward to reading his columns as much as I looked forward to visiting a friend's house on Thursdays for some great Mexican home cooking.
Now I’m dating my ass. Back in the day, every frigging Nigerian pimple-faced school-age kid had a Chase in his hand or in his backpack. It was like a cult following, and it was exciting. Amongst the fellas, girls, girls, college sports meets, college parties, more girls, and James Hadley Chase were favorite topics of discussion. James Hadley Chase was a writer who wrote crime novels, and the setting was exclusively American. He was like an insider feeding his readers gist and itty-bitty details of the criminal underbelly of the American landscape, and the gripping, unforgettable characters that populated it. The prose, to top it all off, was the capper. The text oozed so much Americana in language and prose that discourses that followed always sent the readers and discussants into a tizzy. Nigerian teenagers learned to say “No skin off my nose” from reading a Chase.
The funny thing was that this dude was not even an American! The biography states that he was born in England, and but for a brief visit to the States late in his life, he never really experienced the landscape or culture of which he wrote. Genius, I’d say. The world has slowly come around to it, but the key in keeping interest in anything is to give it the onion twist. String us along, and watch us turn those pages like our lives depend on it. A few writers do it well, but boy, do the ones that know how to do it do it well. All these to say that James Hadley Chase influenced how I write/try to write today.
Ah, here’s another one. Mr. Leonard was as American as they came, and he laid it thick when it came to giving us a peek into the criminal side and mindset of the back-against-the-wall slice of American life. I learned to write dialogue reading Elmore Leonard. Open an Elmore Leonard book and the tiny voice you hear in your head after you read the first lines is saying, “Buckle up.” Mr. Leonard approximates James Hadley Chase in plot and themes, but Leonard takes it a bit further in dialogue. His setting is Florida, USA, but it might as well be Anywhere, USA. The dialogue and character ring so true that you wonder if dude was not right there, in the middle of it all, just steno graphing his ass off, and then giving it back to us as “fiction.”
Several of Elmore Leonard’s books have been turned into movies, and there’s a good reason for it. The stories are frigging cinematic. You see it as you read. You smell it as you read. I’m the type of reader who likes to divvy up the goodies equally amongst my senses when I read. If I’m chugging along with it, there’s a good chance you got me good. Meaning, I can see it, smell it, taste it, feel it, and maybe hear it.
Used Book Stores
I go into the store, walk to the discarded pile table, pick up a book and flip to a page inside. Any page. Through the prose, I can figure out what the story is about, and will tell right there if to invest in the reader or not. I avoid the name thing like a plague. If I flip to a page in your book, and I’m engaged, I may then turn to the back cover of the book to see what the whole story is about. It’s perhaps only then I check out the name of the writer. I don’t keep books I don’t read, and so if you happen to find a book lying around in my house, there’s a good chance I’ve read the darn thing.
I’ve been disappointed enough times playing the name game. I’ve picked up books written by award-winning writers only to drop them after reading two or three chapters. I’ve been schooled by unknown writers I’ve met via the “On Sale” pile at the Used Book Store. These books are dog-eared, undignified looking for a reason – they’ve been passionately handled (read) by their previous owners. That’s how I met Herbert Kastle. His book, The Movie Maker, grabbed me right away the minute I read a few lines pages into the book. The fact that it was a voluminous book made it sweeter. See, I like my ice cream to last impossibly longer if it and my taste buds are on the same page. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it’s one of the few books I would reread in a heartbeat. I learned to juggle multiple characters in a story reading this book.
Yap, those two go together like a juicy steak and beer. Hip Hop instituted the immaculate revolution in music, and perhaps pop culture. The aftershocks (and pay-off) of that revolution can be felt to this day. Heard of Dr. Dre (of NWA fame) becoming a billionaire recently? He can thank the Hip Hop culture for that. Decades ago, when you turned on the radio, “rock and Roll” dominated the airwaves, and all other types of music were moved to the back of the bus, or were not even allowed to enter the damn bus. Talents in other genres of music, and even rock and roll excited crowds and listeners in their little neighborhoods, but could not get the big airplay that was very necessary for a broader audience. A tiny group of neighborhood kids got together, gave the finger to the music industry, and started their own thing, with mass appeal as least of their worries.
And hip hop was born.
Fela went to Los Angeles to gig and showcase his musical talent. Thanks to fate, he met Sandra Isadore Smith and he was never the same again – mentally and musically. Fela shed the stuffy, follow-the-herd mentality much of humanity is cursed with today, and listened to his inner voice. Just as in the case of the hip hop kids, he gave the finger to the established convention in the form of the music he played (jazz), and did his own thing.
Hip hop went back to the hood and brought back tales and skills drive-by industry types and musicians never knew existed, or were determined to ignore. Today we have something called rap, and as a result, we have an idea of what percolates within the walls of the Watts and Long Beaches of this world, and within the minds of the youth that populate the landscape. The landscape has not looked the same ever since. Today, hip hop is the dominant culture and music genre of our time. Go to any neighborhood in Isreal, Germany, Turkey, Ghana, anywhere, and you will find a kid spitting a verse in rhyme, or trying to. And nine times out of ten, they ain’t talking about how fancy their tuxedos look.
Okay, I may be rambling here, but this thing here got me going. And I know your mind is fixated on gangster rap, and you’re ready to accuse me of something. Do your research, bud. Know that, like life, hip hop comes in 3D, maybe 4D – the good, the rough and the ef-it.
Bring your stuff into the mix, is what I’m trying to say here. The sanitized world of literature where every character speaks the same way bores the hell out of me. I know corporate publishers want it that way, but…ugh.
Fela Kuti and hip hop taught me to allow my characters to speak the way I hear them speak as I write. They taught me to allow my characters to look, walk, and act the way they want to. You don’t understand that ethnic word in my story? Google it, bud. I love ethnic expressions. It’s what makes the world worth living. I want to hear, smell and read about the different ethnic parts that make up a culture, be it Russian, Nigerian, English, or whatever. So.
I have another one: Sports Talk Radio. However, I said five, so I’ll keep my word.
And all the writers and artists out there - what inspires you? Where do you go, who do you read, what helps you get into the special place where you can create brilliance? (Also, psst.)