LAWRENCE – James Yékú is a professor of African digital humanities at the University of Kansas, and the online experience – including that during the COVID-19 pandemic – makes itself felt, even as he celebrates perhaps the oldest literary form in his debut poetry collection, “Where the Baedeker Leads” (Mawenzi House, 2021).
It is perhaps ironic, then, that Yékú values poetry for its immediacy.
“Poetry seems to capture my imagination the most when it comes to creative writing,” he said. “Although I devote sufficient time to the craft, it allows me to produce things as swiftly as I want them to come out, unlike the novel form or short stories, or even my scholarly work, where you require the luxury of time.”
An assistant professor in the Department of African & African American Studies and an affiliate of KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, Yékú likes poetry “because of the economy it affords. My response to reality and the human condition can be expressed in few words that, I hope, say quite much.”
“Where the Baedeker Leads” contains poems that are torn from the headlines and social hashtags of Yékú’s Nigerian homeland, including “#EndSARS,” which is a Twitter campaign against police corruption that began in 2017, and “#BringBackOurGirls,” about the 2014 Chibok school mass kidnapping.
He writes more traditional nature and love poems, too, focusing on both his own journey from Nigeria to Canada and now to Kansas, as well as larger societal issues of migration between Africa and Europe.
“For me, the collection is both a celebration of nature and a type of literary activism in the poetic form,” Yékú said. “I am able to respond to political turbulence on the one hand, but also to document the structural systems that generate this kind of problem. And then, too, to be able to have some kind of creative archive of a very difficult aspect of our history in Nigeria is quite empowering.”
In addition to excoriating the terrorists of Boko Haram, Yékú delights in mocking Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari for his autocratic tendencies and his corrupt functionaries, subjecting them to ridiculing wordplay.
All of this is written in Yékú’s second language, English, which is the lingua franca in a nation where 500 separate languages are spoken. Yorùbá is Yékú’s first language. But, like the great novelist Chinua Achebe, he is a proud graduate of the English Department of the University of Ibadan. His doctorate in English comes from the University of Saskatchewan.
It was at Saskatchewan that Yékú discovered the Baedeker as he read E.M. Forster’s “A Room With a View,” a narrative in which the Baedeker operates as a travel guide, a symbol of surface-level restrictions that the heroine must go beyond.
“What I've done in my reformulation of this historical print form, rather, is to articulate it as a metaphoric instrument of unending journeys,” Yékú said, “basically returning to what it did originally in the context of navigation, but also as something that helps me to track and document my own journey from Lagos to Ibadan and then to Saskatoon in Canada, and then down to Lawrence, where I am currently.”
Yékú said the sections of the book are meant to lead from one into the other.
“I wanted to create this idea of moving among different topics,” Yékú said, “but write a book which could, ultimately, be read as a single iteration of my concerns with different places and seasons.”
Image: James Yékú on a 2019 visit to Atlanta. Credit: David Olali