Six African writers talk about their books and what works for them while writing. And of course, share some writing tips for the aspiring author. Enjoy the fifth feature.
Words come easily when we refuse to censor ourselves – Ukamaka Olisakwe
I still remember very clearly my mother’s fears when I sent her a copy of my first novel, Eyes of a Goddess. Though she danced and sang Igbo songs of praise, in celebration of that first giddy feat, she worried, too, on my behalf. She knew I had written a work of fiction, but she feared that people would think I masqueraded real life experiences as fiction.
I waved away her fears. Many times, I got occasional comments from people asking if the story was a representation of a real life experience, I didn’t think much of them until my short story, Nkem’s Nightmare, was published by Jalada in May 2016.
I come from a community where people care deeply about their neighbour’s welfare– too much that they ask questions that encroach on personal spaces. We want to know why you are unmarried, if you are pregnant, if you go to church. You are sitting in a bus, fiddling with your mobile device and the passenger sitting next to you wants to get a glimpse of what you are reading. People have opinion on your life choices, and these sometimes come off as offensive.
I would later realize that I had begun to protect myself from my stories and my finished works lacked depth and character; I censored myself a lot. I stayed away from stories that offend. And over time, the fear grew, birthing new worries. I feared I would be placed in the league of writers who seek the validation of the west, who wrote poverty porn. The treacherous lot who splayed our dirty linens for the west to gaze at. I also was burdened with the cultural and religious expectations that expect me, a married woman, a mother to three children – a Christian who is supposed to act in a certain type of way – to write stories that reek of morals. Because I was supposed to be a virtuous woman. Ezigbo nwa Chineke.
I completed a draft of a new novel early last year and discarded it a month later. My stories lacked depth.
But I got to a point in my life where I decided to shake off the expectations, and that redemption came from mixing with a new crowd – a brilliant crop of writers who write without fear and are mostly persecuted for daring to write certain stories. Yes, I am beginning to write what I like. And embracing this new me made writing stories easier. Real.
Words come easily when we refuse to censor ourselves, when we stay truthful to our crafts and ignore diversionary voices intent on prescribing how we write and who we write for. And it is only then that we take joy in telling our stories because we tell it with much truthfulness as they come.
I often suffer blocks. But the phase easily passes because I learned how to navigate that mental fatigue by listening to lots of music, taking long walks and jotting down conversations I hear on the streets.
- Ukamaka Olisakwe (screenwriter, novelist, nonfiction writer; Nigeria) writes TV scripts (most recently the series “The Calabash”), essays, short stories, and has one novel. Selected in 2014 by the Africa39 Project as one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40, she has had her work appear in the New York Times and on the BBC, as well as been published in Jalada, Saraba, Sentinel Nigeria and Short Story Day Africa. She participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and was a 2016 guest writer of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.