Chikodili Emelumadu is a Nigerian writer, broadcaster and blogger living in London. She has a BA in English language and literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka and an MA in Cross Cultural Communications and International Relations from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. She was a 2015 Shirley Jackson nominee. Chikodili is on the 2017 Caine Prize shortlist. In this interview which we had via email, we talked about speculative fiction based on traditional African beliefs and her short story, Bush Baby. Enjoy it.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Caine Prize, Chikodili. What does this win mean to you?
Ah, how lovely of you to call this a ‘win’. I guess in many ways it is, however, a worthier story than mine took home the prize. It still is an honour to be recognised for my work, yes.
I found your shortlisted story, Bush Baby, intriguing. It built itself around this superstition of a mystical baby capable of tormenting humans. I’d like to think Bush Baby is speculative fiction, but is superstition something you believe in? Why did you think it was necessary to tell the story of a man-eating ‘gwei-gwei’?
Well, I grew up in a place where the lines between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘supernatural’ can be blurred, if not non-existent. People will speak about fantastical events in the same breath as they would current affairs. ‘Bush Baby’ was born from that place. In fact, I conflated two monsters – the Bush Baby (some people will say ‘Baby Bush’) and the ‘Gwei-Gwei’ from Hausa myth – just to make it extra scary for the Nigerians out there!
I see then that speculative fiction is your thing. But more importantly is that you base your stories on African traditional beliefs, which to me is a good thing. A kind of revival of our oral literature. As someone who writes from the west, do you find that your readers there often struggle with your stories? Are there times you find yourself overly explaining concepts to them? Generally, what’s the experience like being a Nigerian writer of Nigerian stories in a western country?
‘Overly-explaining concepts’. Man, that used to be me in my very early days of writing. I’m talking baby days. Even then it used to bother and annoy me but I felt I had to ‘obey’ editors as it was the price of getting published. Now, I don’t bother. We’ve all read books that have nothing to do with our immediate environments; stories set in desolate landscapes full of snow and ice and raw fish served during mealtimes. Foreign words and concepts, tales far removed from our reality, and yet, we have always found the thread of universal human experience on which to hang. Other people need to do the same for ours, shit. Are our lives that foreign that every single thing has to be explained? Readers aren’t idiots and editors shouldn’t treat them as such.
I’m enjoying the insistence or should I say resistance from African writers, in rejecting certain ideas or positions. I must also say that you capture the conflicted relationship between older siblings and their younger siblings really well with how Ihuoma is frustrated by Okwuchukwu’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle and his sense of entitlement, but still can’t help feeling overly protective of him. Is this something you’ve experienced,or was it just a writer using their imagination?
I have a lot of siblings but this was very much a writer using her imagination. I sometimes take real life scenarios and turn them, sort of play devil’s advocate with them. I do have that one brother who will inherit everything my father owns but he is cool and calm and sensible and like the rest of us, doesn’t concern himself with such things. He’s trying to make his own path. Not like Okwuchukwu at all.
Indeed, not like Okwuchukwu, the spendthrift. Is it okay to conclude that he turned out as he did because of the circumstances that surrounded him, as the death of his parents and a sister that who’d abandoned him? The two characters seemed to be plagued all through the story.
Yes, that’ll be a fair assessment. To him, it was abandonment by the two women he loved the most.
A really poignant part of the story for me though was when Ihuoma’s mother tells her they’re trying their best to conceive. Often when children pester their parents for baby siblings, it’s very rarely considered that the parents could want other children just as badly, but are struggling. Was this something you consciously set to bring out in the story? Also, Ihuoma was a child, she was barely 6 when her mother told her that, but it obviously stayed with her (as most things often tend to with children) Do you think more than she possibly blamed her brother for their mother’s death, she blamed herself?
This is a very good question, wow. I do reckon she sort of blames herself for her mother dying, even though she shouldn’t have. It stays with her, which is why, as soon as she can, she leaves the country and doesn’t return for eleven years. It probably doesn’t occur to her that her mother was facing the pressure to produce a boy (in a society that values boys) and so she internalises her mother’s response and feels very responsible when she dies.
Then there’s Idi, the gateman, from Brono in Northern Nigeria. Brings to my mind Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story. Isn’t it cliché that the gateman in most Nigerian stories have to be from the north? What do you think would have happened if Ihuoma and Okwy were from a Hausa tribe and the gateman, Igbo?
Happened in what way? I don’t think it’s cliché, no. Is it a fact that all over southern Naija are gatemen from the north? Haba. It’s like saying it’s cliché to have a black man win the 100m sprint. I needed to have the Hausa guy there to explain the ‘Gwei-Gwei’ which is a monster from his culture. Other gatemen in my other stories might not necessarily be northern.
I get the concept now. Yet, the story kind of ends abruptly. Did Okwuchukwu and Ihuoma defeat the gwei-gwei, did they not? It’s a good job on leaving the reader intrigued, but I’ve always wondered, when you do that – have a suspense-filled ending – are you as the writer satisfied with just leaving the reader thinking it could have gone either way? Do you know which way it went, or is it just a ploy to keep readers wanting more of your writing?
The story ends as it was supposed to end. I didn’t think it was a cliffhanger until people started going on about it. I’d built the monster up so much that it would have been anti-climactic to show it physically. No ploy at all.
So what are your plans now? I read somewhere that a book is in the works. Can we get a sneak peek of what it’s about?
Sure! My book is about a girl whose family is going through an upheaval at the same time people in her school start vanishing and how she begins to realise both things might be linked, even as she goes through a big change herself based on her ancestry. It’s very Igbo spiritual and mythological. I’m quite excited by it.