To Set Oneself Free of Fear: A Q&A with Nigerian Writer Ukamaka Olisakwe
Nigerian novelist Ukamaka Olisakwe writes stories about women: mothers and daughters, teenage girls who refuse to conform to society’s standards. Growing up in Northern Nigeria, she and other women faced harsh stigmas if they dared to dress freely. The restrictions upon women’s appearances were lessened when she moved South, and Ukamaka encountered women who were less burdened, who could “laugh a lot louder,” a cultural shift that weaves itself into the fabric of her work.
Selected as one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 39 most prominent writers under the age of 40 in 2014, Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of the novel Eyes of a Goddess (2012). She has written for The New York Times and been featured on the BBC, as well as been published in Nigerian magazines that include Olisa.tv, Saraba, Sentinel Nigeria and Short Story Day Africa. She is a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and was a 2016 guest writer of City of Asylum. SampsoniaWay.org interviewed Ukamaka about her feminism and how it influences her work– particularly her new project, which is her most defiant book yet.
What was it like to be in the United States post-election? Did the atmosphere during your stay here remind you of anything you had experienced before?
It brought back the memories of our own 2015 presidential elections. My friends and I invested a lot of emotions into the campaign. We shouted from our rooftops our support for a preferred candidate. We lost friends, we made new friends. We found new ideologies, we hoped against hope. It was the most defining moment in our recent history, and when the candidate I supported emerged the winner, I exhaled. For many days after President Muhammadu Buhari was declared the winner, I could almost reach out and touch the excitement on social media and on the streets. For the first time since we embraced democracy in 1999, we voted out a government we felt failed us in many ways, and it felt good that we could send an incumbent packing. That our voices mattered.
I followed the US presidential elections with the same enthusiasm.
Though Hillary Clinton is not the first female to ever run for office, the campaign was a global affair.
It was heartwarming how Secretary Clinton stood up to the demagogue called Donald Trump, a man whose misogynist and racist comments shook the core of this country, of this world. I like to believe that many girls, including my daughters who followed the American elections, found some sort of encouragement with the way Secretary Clinton waved away Mr. Trump’s hecklings during the debates. She came prepared for each session, wore her best smile even the face of adversity, and remained unshaken. Girls are taught to shrink themselves for the man; Secretary Clinton flipped the bird at that cultural expectation. I think it would have been a satisfying victory if she won.
And when she lost, I was numbed for days, and then it hit me – that Mr. Trump worked on people’s fears and ignorance, played this to his favor and won the elections. His winning was a racist response to President Obama’s administration. It was bewildering that America, which has only begun to hold new conversations on racism, police brutality on people of color and misogyny, chose to enthrone Trump; this was surely some sort of nightmare we would wake up from, I thought. It was devastating. It still is.
It is a fearful time, and you have written about fear before. In 2014, you wrote in The New York Times about growing up fearful in Northern Nigeria, feeling the tensions between Muslims and Christians. How was fear reflected in the appearance, the dress, the attitudes of people you grew up with in the North? How did that change when you moved South? Did this change in appearance and attitudes make its way into your fiction?
Nigeria is a country divided along religious lines and often, we had conflicts that led to bloodshed. People lost their lives for criticizing the other’s religion. A man in my city was beheaded because his wife allegedly used a torn piece from the Koran to wipe her baby’s butt. These conflicts speckled my memories of growing up, and I remember my parents reminding us to never engage in religious arguments; they never ended well in my city of birth.
Also, I grew up in a neighborhood where girls were frowned at if they wore makeup or put on certain kinds of outfits. I had always loved trousers because it seemed more comfortable and I wouldn’t have to perform femininity or those social etiquettes that expects a girl to act like a “lady” – to sit in a particular way, legs pressed tightly together, hands folded nicely on my lap. I felt those were boring and limiting; I didn’t want to perform that charade. But I couldn’t wear trousers either because girls who wore them were branded as sluts. My young mind could never bear that burden. That fear of facing society’s anger calcified into a stone that sat in my stomach and it jumped each time I saw young girls like me taunted and harassed on the streets over what they wore.
And so, when I moved down to southeastern Nigeria and saw the strong cultural differences, I was disconcerted at first. Though it is predominantly Christians, girls were burdened with a different kind of expectations, but they wore trousers and makeups. They laughed a lot louder. I learned to set myself free from the fear in which I had enshrouded myself. This contrasting experiences are themes I am exploring in my latest project.
Can you say more about your latest project?
I am currently writing my first “fuck you” book.
I come from a community where women are burdened cultural expectations like getting married and taking on a man’s surname, having children, having male children, staying faithful and even, staying put even in abusive relationships. And so, I found I censored myself a lot by writing stories that do not offend. If I must write stories of daring women, something bad happens to her and this becomes the moral of the story – you, as a woman, must not go astray.
We are barraged with this narrative by Nigeria’s movie industry, Nollywood, which is the third biggest movie industry in the world.
But I got to that point in my life and career where I decided to say – fuck this! I will write what I like. And that’s what I am doing now.
You wrote that when you moved to the South of the country, you came to miss the fear, in part, because “fear sets boundaries.” How did the boundaries of fear influence your development as a writer?
Yes, it did influence my development because, earlier, when I started writing and getting my stories published, I found I censored myself a lot – I avoided stories that challenged society’s expectation of the woman. And it was partly in fear of what people would say, if they would draw parallels or accuse me of writing immoral stories. But I think I have learned to stay true to myself and tell stories as they come, no matter the criticisms I get.
How do you think the rise of Boko Haram will influence the imaginations of the next generation of Nigerian women writers?
I think we first have to write about the stories of the people whose lives have been deeply affected by that reign of terror. Nigerian writer Helon Habila has written a heartfelt work of nonfiction called The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings & Islamic Militancy in Nigeria, a recount of that time in our history, when over two hundred girls were abducted by the terror group. And the battle to bring to end the Boko Haram insurgency is still an ongoing battle championed by the Nigerian military.
So, will it influence the imaginations of the Nigerian female writer? I think it has already. We have written essays and articles on same topic. I think it will have a longstanding impact on Nigerian literature and the arts. Boko Haram is a tragedy that shouldn’t have reared its head, but it did and affected us all.
I love “This Is How I Remember It,” a short story you wrote that depicts the blurry line between friendship and romance for two women—one who is straight, the other who is coming to terms with her queerness. Why was this an important story for you to write?
I wanted to tell the story of love and rejection. I had read much stories on straight and same sex relationships, and so I experimented with telling the story of a girl falling in love with another girl who wants a different kind of relationship with her. I am glad I did.
Even though homosexuality is a taboo topic in Nigeria, I wasn’t nervous about telling it; I simply sat down I did some writing. I cared little about the new homophobic culture that is sweeping through my country. I just wanted to tell that story as it came to me and I didn’t care how it was received, if people liked it or not.
What kind of reception has this story received?
Initially, I received great feedback from friends, and found some reviews online. But I got harsh criticism during a reading at the University of Port Harcourt. It was the World Book Festival and I and other writers selected for the Africa39 project visited the school for a reading and Q&A session with students.
Some students said I was encouraging homosexuality, others made even more personal attacks by asking how I would feel if my daughter comes out as a lesbian. I was quite upset by the ignorant comments, and even more upset that I was hurt by the criticisms. But I got over it; homophobia had just been enabled by our legislatures which passed a bill banning same-sex marriages and calling for a 14-year sentence for anyone convicted of homosexuality.
Who did you read when you were coming into your own as a writer?
I read mostly of works by women; they wrote so that I could find my own voice. And some of this great voices include Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emechata, Flora Nwapa, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Sefi Atta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many more others.
How common is it for Nigerian women writers to be able to go into a separate space and dedicate their time solely to writing? How did this—solitude, time—affect your work here?
I think many Nigerian women writers already have amazing ways with which they bring their works to fruition. We have so many amazing female writers showcasing their works on social media – especially on Facebook. Many of them publish stories which are also reviewed by their peers. Social media crashed the old gate and gave people opportunities to tell their stories; they don’t need to appease the gods or bow for gatekeepers who previously decided who got read. We simply write.
And on how I find space to write, I am that writer who craves solitude. At home, I created a schedule that worked quite well for me. But in Iowa and Pittsburgh, I was gifted amazing spaces to create, to think. And at any time I wanted to.
The opportunities were the greatest gifts I was given this year. Living away from home for four months opened my eyes to things I never took seriously; I was able to take a look back at home, which was necessary.
Also, I learned a lot about myself, what I am capable and the things I should bring to my stories. I realized many things we get right and those we fail woefully at. This has improved my art.
What, besides books and space to write, are your primary influences as a writer?
She married when she was only sixteen and had me, her first child, when she was seventeen. My earliest memories of her was this tall, beautiful woman who struggled to set up her own business. She was and still is a force. She never cowered in the face of adversity; she never bowed to poverty. She would wake up as early as four am to prepare the various delicacies she sold at her stall by afternoon, and when she returned by evening, lugging the condiments for the next day, she went straight to the kitchen, picking beans and rice, preparing the tomatoes and broths. She went to bed at ten pm but was up, before cock’s crow, to begin the circle all over again. She did this all through my childhood and only stopped after my last sibling had gained admission into the university.
My mother cared little of people’s criticism of her choices, or she did a good job of hefting the burdens on her shoulders. She is the most hardworking person I had ever known in my entire life. She is my greatest influence. She is primarily why I want to center all my stories on the lives of women.
What moment in your development did you think of yourself as a true, authentic writer?
I think I am still struggling to understand who an “authentic” writer is. But I try to stay true to the voices in my head, to tell my story with honesty and to stay true to my craft.