Q&A: poet-psychiatrist Femi Oyebode on literature, medical humanities and the mind

AiW Guest: Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè

Femi Oyebode is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the current author of Sim’s Symptoms in the Mind (4th edition). His other books include Mindreadings: literature and psychiatry & Madness at the Theatre. He has published 6 volumes of poetry: Naked to your softness and other dreams; Wednesday is a colour; Adagio for oblong mirrors; Forest of transformations; Master of the leopard hunt; and Indigo, camwood and mahogany red. Also, Selected PoemsHis research interests include clinical psychopathology, medical humanities, the application of ethics to psychiatric practice, and neuropsychological and neural correlates of abnormal phenomena.

femi-oyebodeTọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè for Africa in Words: I must thank you, Prof, for talking with me, for sharing your time with me. I am tempted to begin this interview by asking you that over worn question whenever a medical practitioner doubles as a writer, as how medicine overlap with literature, and other such questions like how the two fields is managed by the interviewee. But I have read your book, Mindreadings: Literature and Psychiatry, which interestingly describes that. Nevertheless, for the reader’s sake, could you elaborate on the functionality of literature as a method of healing and especially what you have termed as ‘medical humanities’?

Femi Oyebode: It is well acknowledged that modern medicine is technologically driven. In practice this means that there is the risk that machines get in the way of the clinical encounter; a transaction that ought to be determined by humane interactions can be stripped of empathy and any true compassion. In addition, medical training by definition de-humanises the person, that is to say, objectifies the person and often also decomposes the person into organs. All this means that the clinical encounter is fraught with risks for the patient- their suffering, their real wishes, the hopes and aspirations can be lost within the modern clinical arena. This is where ‘medical humanities’ come in. This is an attempt to re-introduce subjectivity into an intensely objectifying area of work. What better tool can there be but the humanities, disciplines that challenge us to take seriously the subjectivity of another human being, that recognise that we negotiate meanings within a world of meaning that is co-created with others. I hope this sums why the ‘medical humanities’ and what the project intends to introduce to medicine and what the likely benefits are for patients.

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: Still on medical humanities. Your exilic isolation, though we’re still coming back to this, brooks suicidal expression in your poetry which prompts me to ask about the thematic preoccupation of suicide in African literature. It’s not really being thematised in contemporary African literature, I think, while I can remember Achebe’s Okonkwo’s suicide in Things Fall Apart and Elesin Oba’s suicide in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The two are symbolic as cultural deaths but their meaning can also be stretched to the psychological planes of the characters. What does this mean for the sociological condition of a culture that refuses to examine itself?

oyebode-mindreadingsOyebode: Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper has suicide at the end. That was my first reading of suicide in Nigerian literature. But, my interest in these matters is almost entirely from the viewpoint of the person subjected to intolerable strain that death seems a better option. Our task as psychiatrists is to come to understand human abnormal behaviour – no behaviour is so alien, so perverse that we turn away from it. We are like Catholic priests who have to be able to listen to all human maladies, be able to comprehend it and at least give succour even when the acts are unspeakable. So you can see straightforwardly the dilemma of a psychiatrist – how to comprehend but not condone, how to maintain moral compass yet be human enough to listen to utmost perversity. Now this is exactly the role of the writer too. To work to understand and to make comprehensible the inner recesses of grievous corruption and I use the term corruption in its primordial sense- for something pure to be turned towards what is vile and disgusting to us. Our moral sensibility is cleverly annexed to our gustatory functions; what is morally corrupt is disgusting, it makes us want to vomit! This task of the writer is, like for the psychiatrist, profoundly disquieting and dangerous. I mean for the serious writer whose task is more than just to tell a palatable story.

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: Since delving into your poetic oeuvres I’ve been in awe, I must admit. It’s been utter pleasure reading your poetry. Your stylistics and diction are disciplined and enchanting as you straddle between the physical world and your metaphysical constructs. When you write, do you persistently feel this as a signature; how much is style important to you?

Oyebode: Writing is not, I believe, an activity that is other than impregnated with one’s fingerprint. What we call ‘voice’ is exactly that- a manner of speaking, of thinking, much like our stride pattern when we walk. So, the preoccupation with precision, with exactitude, with sonorous words, with brevity, with an aiming for that which is intangible but that still seeks expression- well all that is who I am, not consciously or by posturing or as a dramatic expression of self but intrinsically and deeply what I am. Style is essentially who we are.

oyebode-selected-poemsSalaudeen-Adégòkè: From Wednesday is a Colour, the hostility, racial discrimination and prejudice immigrants face is expressed in this volume which makes me conclude you write to question out aloud. I would like to quote few lines from this book now: ‘i voted without delight and was able without tension, /my neighbours were fond of me, /this was england after a decade’. You speak of your acculturation by naturalisation. Do you now feel welcomed in England after many years? And do you think time has really worn racism out, especially when migration was one of the influences of the outcome the Brexit referendum?

Oyebode: I am not sure that I am writing about ‘racism’ in that poem but I am comfortable with that reading. No, consciously I was writing about a particular kind of lassitude that Europe engenders, a self-satisfaction, a reluctance to take anything seriously, an evenness of living that acts as if wars, suffering, dying, poverty are not taking place elsewhere. But of course it is only an apparent calm – hence my approach was to caricature in order to reveal it. Most English people I think read it as a mild criticism of a settled culture, and will wear a wry smile when they read it, exactly as I describe it in the poem. Now, for the question of identity- that’s a serious question that has long and complex answer(s). We are entering a new world where identity is going to be very fluid, very fragile, and I am I think, in that vanguard. In a way all Africans are in this category. I speak Yoruba and English, I write in English, I practise medicine in English, I switch cultural identity depending what I am trying to talk about and I am visibly foreign in the UK but colleagues are often surprised when I refer to being Nigerian. One of the strangest facts is that in my specialist area of research, there are only maybe a dozen people in the world interested in the subject and I am regarded not as an African psychopathologist but rather as a British psychopathologist. You can see that these matters are far from settled. The world, it is a-changing!

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: In Adagio for Oblong Mirror, your sensitivity to spectra of colours is obvious, sometimes warm and other times lacklustre. I know this must be informed by your training in the field of psychiatry, I have read sparingly into it one time. Do you consider colours as an approach to understanding ourselves and environs, especially in connexion to these philosophical concepts ‘colour realism’ and ‘colour fictionalism’?

Oyebode: There is no theory involved at all. It was a period when I was obsessed with colours, their variety, their gradual but definite change from one to the other, and the absence of any true line of clarification. Also how the words that describe colours themselves take on the beauty of the perceived colour, an interesting phenomenon. It was also a period when I became convinced that in order to force myself to look outside and see the world properly rather than being introspective, seeing colour and shape in the objective world would help and it did. I took up drawing and painting for a very brief period as part of this project. What is interesting for me is that the hidden creative processes are implicit rather than explicit in the poems.

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: Forest of Transformation puts one in mind of the geographical and cultural history of Benin city, her civilisation and spiritual migration. I remember watching a documentary on BBC, The Lost Kingdom some time ago about this same explanation. Here you become an historian in retrospect wanting to tell his history himself. Was it a way of setting aright your cultural root?

Oyebode: I don’t believe that literature is interested in that kind of authenticity. It is a different kind of truth I was after, for which the historical periods and the differing personae were an excuse to explore. I was also at that time interested in a particular kind of rhythm – one that seemed to go on forever – and for that I listened to Miles Davies and tried to capture his tone and his spirit. So, in Gaha, I was interested in despotism not merely in Gaha but as a symbol of Babaginda, and later Abacha. In Master of the Leopard Hunt my interest switched to the inner life of an unnamed Benin sculptor – the master of the leopard hunt – whose style is recognised by art historians but sadly he is anonymous.

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: All your poetry volumes are sold out, even on Amazon, except two volumes. Are there any plans making them readily available again? And I am aware you are having a poetry manuscript ready for publication. Is it at a stage where you can talk about it?

Oyebode: All there is to say is that I continue to write. The themes haven’t changed significantly. I am not sure about the language – there is perhaps even more economy. I am working on the 6th edition of my textbook on psychopathology; the manuscript is due at the publishers in September 2017. When that’s done, I intend to turn to poetry but I also have in mind at least two other books and it very much depends on how things are towards the end of this year.

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: Finally, on literary criticism, especially in this contemporary generation, I can remember when we met in Nigeria recently you expressed pessimism about this, dubbing the present day criticism as ‘mere praise’. Are there anything more you wish to say that we can learn of your view?

Oyebode: My intention was not to be uncharitable about contemporary critical studies, merely to draw attention to the risk of undue praise – it is as damaging to the writer as it is to the critic’s reputation. The life of the mind, if I might use such a grandiloquent expression, is serious business. This includes the business of creative writing, of criticism and of course of academic life. It ought to be conducted conscientiously and that requires discipline and commitment.

Salaudeen-Adégòkè: Again, thanks for having this conversation with me. It’s been a pleasure.


tope-eniobankeThe Favourite Son of Africa is the pseudonym of Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè. He is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. Also, he is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. He is presently experimenting with poetic forms, including mathematical poetry, but does not know when his debut poetry collection will be ready. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.

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2 replies


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  2. Mind Reading 2018 – Mental Health and the Written Word (Conference, Birmingham, 18-19 June 2018) | Centre for Medical Humanities

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