The Pen and The Sword is a Praxis series of conversations where Nigerian writers reflect on what it really means to be a writer and explore how writing and indeed, writers, can influence change in the country, especially in the midst of the many killings and abductions going on.
‘The writer can do the only thing they can possibly do—to write,’ Amara Okolo begins, ‘Write consistently, savagely, write without vain. It’s coincidental that you asked this question because I have been thinking about it. In the course of my residencies here in the US, I have come across writers who are really using their writing as a force of element in their countries. They have been harassed, jailed, and some have even fled due to death threats. I have a writer friend from Turkey who was imprisoned, and when she reads her poetry in Kurdish you can hear the tranquillity, the memories of pain in her voice. With all that is going on in Nigeria, especially with terrorism, we are supposed to be telling the stories of these survivors, even the victims. We should not let their voices die out.’
Does it have to stop at writing? Or is much more expected? Amara Okolo emphasizes that ‘People are getting increasingly selfish these days, so I guess nothing more will be expected (if the writing happens).’ ‘Now don’t get me wrong…it is okay to be selfish sometimes, I am all for self-care and worth, especially in this time and generation,’ she clarifies, ‘but it is important to know that stories will not do all that is expected to be done for optimal change. Actions would have to be made. I have been to various parts of Northern Nigeria, and this year, I was talking to a friend about revisiting different IDP camps in the North to not just write and photograph about the situation there, but to also help as a volunteer, to assist in any way I can. I am not financially buoyant, and my work and everyday life restricts me from doing the most I can for these communities. But I have something in the works, and I hope in time I can do the best I can.’
She continues that indeed, a writer’s work should be a reflection of her environment, ‘As a writer, your environment exists for you to write about it. The people, the sounds, the voices, the weather, the earth, the emotions…if you don’t write about something you are familiar with, what else would you write well? No offence, but I think most Nigerian writers today are writing stories that fit a certain narrative just so they could be published. I stand corrected if I am wrong, though. It is okay to be published, but let us focus on what made us writers first—which is being Nigerian. Let us write about home the way no other foreigner can write about it. Write a story that no one else can tell better than you can, not what you think fits the margin. I write about grief and loss because I lost people to different forms of death in such quick succession that I felt the pain cease the beating of my own heart. I do not want to write about grief and loss—my first novel was a chick-lit romance. I wanted to write about love and happiness all through. But I began to experience these things that made my environment, my thinking change, and I had to write about the things I saw and faced.’
Having lost a parent, Amara Okolo talks about the possibility of finding comfort in other people’s reality through words, if only they would stay true to their experiences, ‘I wish more writers would write about happiness and beautiful things, especially people who have never lost a parent, who still have the second choice of home to return to during holidays. I want happy stories from these writers, because they are enveloped by them. But apparently, it seems like no writer wants to write about these things. I hope one day, they see that this happiness is a privilege, and they use that environment to create a story for people living in grief, like me.’
But how does she try to reach out to others and the society through her own work? Amara responds, ‘I am trying to not just focus on myself when writing. I try to tell the human experience from all spheres of life, from happiness to joy, from pain to suffering. I am trying to give my stories a thousand voices that will echo through a change in the narrative. I don’t want to be regarded a revolutionary, but I want my writing to cause a revolution; to raise conversations and dialogues, to get people talking. This is why nowadays I end all my stories with something I call ‘open-ended memories’, a way of getting the reader to see the story materialize in pictures they can see, can imagine, and then when they get to the end, they think about. They think about it when sitting in their rooms, in the bus on their way to work, in class, with friends and loved ones. They wonder why the story ended that way, and try to see what happens after that last paragraph, that last line. And with all this, they create a memory without knowing it. They ask and answer questions; they bring life to the characters in their own specific way. That, for me, is all that makes the difference.’
Amara Nicole Okolo is a lawyer and writer living in Nigeria. She is the author of Black Sparkle Romance and a collection of short stories, Son of Man. She was amongst the participants of the 2015 Farafina Workshop by Chimamanda Adichie. In 2017 her short story “The Colour of Teeth” was published in an anthology by Afreada and translated to Spanish by Afribuku. She is currently working on her second and third novels.