Putting a face to immigration with Inua Ellams

Inua Ellams, the poet, performer and playwright shares his witty and honest poems, whilst telling the story of his journey as an immigrant from Nigeria.

His recent show at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, An Evening with an Immigrant, Ellams explores the themes of immigration and identity, which is so important when often individual’s immigration stories are turned into mass statistics. Ellams successfully puts a face to immigration and humanising the topic which allows his audience to relate to his deeply personal story. In a world of Donald Trump and the looming ruling of Brexit, it’s so important to view the stories of immigrants as singular cases, rather than sensationalised facts.

Ellams began by telling us about his childhood, how he and his family lived in Nigeria until they were forced to leave due to threats upon their safety. His parents having different religions was a source of tension between their local community and after receiving death threats and instances of his father being followed home by armed men, the family sold their home and moved to the UK. Throughout his talk, Ellams painfully recounts the great uncertainty his family suffered for the next 15 or so years, whilst trying to apply for the right to live in the UK permanently.

Ellams’ writing, he describes, was something he picked up in his teenage years, and then would travel all over London for poetry competitions. It appears that poetry saved Inua Ellams, it wasn’t long until he began earning money from his poetry and was able to have an escape from his fractured identity as a young man living in the UK. Years of seeking residence rights, resulted in the verdict of no, meaning that his family had to move once again. However, throughout all of this, Ellams is the perfect entertainer by interjecting with witty, funny and often crude poems about childhood, relationships and family. He writes about pulling pranks on other students as a young boy, and about his grandfather interrupting a festivity in Nigeria by cheekily climbing under the tables to get to the food.

Ellams greatest achievement in this talk was the sheer honesty and detail he puts into his poems, but also the stories he tells the audience. His poems are bursting of youth and that was translated into his presentation at the Literature Festival, a night filled with energy and excitement. The high point of this talk was, when near the end of the show Ellams recounted how, after much personal struggle to achieve the right to reside in the UK, he received an invitation to Buckingham Palace because of his growing success. This moment came with the sweetest release as the audience saw their protagonist achieve well deserved recognition for his work, all during the tense wait for another verdict on his families’ residence status.

When I contacted Inua Ellams he said this when I asked him to give advice for other young writers, “always be your weird self and protect your quirks and idiosyncrasies; this is what makes your voice different and new.” Ellams’ show, An Evening with an Immigrant, was a resounding success and moved many in the audience to great emotion. His work speaks volumes about his journey as an immigrant. At this time, when the media is so ready to point the finger, generalise and blame immigrants for certain aspects of society, it’s so important to remember the humanity involved in every story of immigration. In short, we all want somewhere safe to live, and like Inua Ellams, we all deserve a chance to succeed.