Ijeoma Umebinyuo was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of Questions for Ada, her first published collection of prose poems and poems. Her writings have been translated to Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian and French.
This conversation happened between the now hailing storm city of Gaborone, Botswana and sunny, robust city of Lagos, Nigeria by Skype.
Gaamangwe: Ijeoma, I read one of your poems where you said –
“I am writing for the women who were once girls judging themselves through the eyes of souls who couldn’t comprehend their light.”
I really resonate with this because I have been, and sometimes I am the girl who judges herself through the eyes that don’t understand the constellation of my being. So, I am interested in knowing how you got to a point where you decided that you want to be talking for girls, about girls and their womanhood.
Ijeoma; I started writing when I was about ten. So writing for me has always been in my being. My childhood friends are not surprised that I have a book or I am writing. But the themes of what I write I think started happening around my late teens. It was about exploring everything that I have been taught, from religion to being an African woman, and leaving Nigeria for the first time. I sort of understood my blackness and what that meant for the first time in my life. So I have a lot of stories and you can see it’s not one single narrative. And so many people can see themselves in that. I didn’t know at a certain point that was a beautiful thing.
I didn’t think it was because I don’t really fit into a certain narrative, you can’t really place me in a certain narrative and say “Okay, this is how Ijeoma is”, and “this is how Ijeoma thinks”. I can’t really place myself there and I didn’t. And it was in my late teens that I started to explore and understand what it meant to be a woman. What I began to see did not sit well with me. When I was younger and growing up, there were things I wanted to say, and now that I have an opportunity to say them, I say them and I am no longer scared. So it took a lot of going inward and relearning everything I have been told. Because we have been told that this is what you should think and this is what you should do. And you realize that there are so many things that are wrong with certain narratives.
It came to me when I understood that society benefits when I am being silent, and being silenced. Because the most dangerous thing that I have come to realize is a woman that cannot be silenced. Especially in a society like ours. And when young woman speak up and own themselves and know who they are, that’s very difficult for society to comprehend.
So that quote you said I think I wrote it for me and also for girls to understand that they are not alone. I get messages and girls of different ages telling me that “Thank you for writing this, thank you for making me understand that I am not going crazy, that I am okay, and that I am fine” and these are very important things for a woman to see, especially for a woman who has a name like mine, someone who is like me, someone that has lived in places that someone will tell you women from this place don’t speak up. So for women to see me speak up and write about this things, they are the people I am writing for. My first audience, those are the most important audience to me.
And whenever I receive message that tell me “I breathe better”, “I feel less alone”, “I feel like someone out there understands me”, that’s success to me. These are really important things to me because I understand what it’s like to have these thoughts and feel this way. And someone telling you “you are not normal” and thinking how you are acting and thinking is not normal. So I am writing against that, saying this is totally fine. This is who you are and this is how you think.
It started a long time ago and it’s been a long time coming. I look at this as something normal and should have been there. It’s not groundbreaking in a way but it is because I write the things that a lot of people are scared to see. Things that women and young girls seat around at night and talk about within themselves but cannot say outside. Taboos like rape, molestation and depression. These are things that affect all genders. And I do write about all genders but I am very particular about the girl child and women, about stories that we tell and that we live, stories that when we are dead and gone people can read, stories that young girls can read and say “I see myself in that”. And it’s so unfortunate that we have such a long way to go regarding womanism or feminism in Africa.
I always say this words ” They always tell men to stand up for power”, like its normalized and men are supposed to stand up for power and run for office but when we begin to see women in complex positions as politicians and judges, so many things like policies change. And that’s vital. I want to say that so much change when women take action. And just seeing African women doing this, it’s so uplifting. You see centers for domestic abuse and you see women understanding the dynamics of being a woman.
I was watching a documentary about women in Cameroon and they were policewomen and you can see the kind of passion that they have for other women who are coming up and saying “this person raped me” or “my husband beats me”. And they are using their language and their own mannerism. All these things are important because for you and I, we can speak perfect English, we are very exposed and we are educated. But these women who don’t speak like us and who don’t even have access to cellphones are making so much change in Africa. And it’s uplifting. Because they make use of the laws and systems in place. Because they have nothing to lose.
It’s very important that we tell these stories.
Gaamangwe: I deeply resonate with so much of what you just said. I feel like we are at a brink of a revolution because a lot of people and writers like you are really bringing up all these issues up and it’s great because it’s opening up dialogues. The landscape of womanhood and what it means is so interesting right now. You wrote about the importance of women defining the terms and conditions of their womanhood. This is an interesting thought Ijeoma. How can we do this such that we reach a point where every woman understands her womanhood and how she wants to express it in the world?
Ijeoma; Here is my thing, just because I define my womanhood a different way, and just because I am this way doesn’t mean that you have to be that way. Because I think it’s very important for us to understand that the different dynamics of women are very important to feminism or womanism. Because I cannot tell someone else that as a woman this is what you have to do and this is how feminism is defined. We need to be very careful about that. There are so many dynamics of feminism and there are so many ways that a woman can say I am a woman and this is who I am and this is how I show mine.
We need to understand that defining our humanity and knowing what we call being a woman should always be choice. So defining the terms and conditions of our womanhood is really about choice. Some of us are privileged, where we can say what we want but we have to understand that so many women don’t.
We have a society that tell men that they can do whatever they want to do and they can be whoever they want to be but a woman is defined by so many borders she has to carry. At the end of the day it’s like she does not have a choice in her life. That’s where feminism/womanism comes into play and that’s where people have a problem with it because when you give a woman a choice that’s a problem for society.
It is important to have that choice to do whatever we want and be whoever we want, and have that equal opportunity like any man would. One thing that I think is important is for women to be in political positions because that will make a lot of difference. If we begin to speak from an African perspective, we can see in most cases when women are in positions of power. Because we can see when people are discussing issues that are about women and women are not there it doesn’t make any sense. Nobody knows a woman’s body like a woman does. Things like reproductive rights, financial independence, political positions, ownership of land and inheritance.
So I think that choice needs to be at the cornerstone of being a woman. Because when choice is removed it’s not equal opportunity, it’s not women empowerment.
Gaamangwe: Yes, it’s inequality. And it’s what we are all fighting for. Because most of the time we are not given choices as women, on how to be or how we are supposed to express ourselves. It’s in the smallest of things.
Growing up I didn’t realize the narrative I was being given on womanhood until I started reading on my own and started being my own self. And I read your work and I read other people’s work and the reality is that we have to unlearn so much as women. It’s sad because our counterparts, our men don’t fully understand the world that we live in, the landscape and the personal realities of women. So your work is empowering and resonate with us, your readers because they are things that pass us and we don’t take note of them but they really define our lives and who we are and how we act.
You write about mental health, rape and depression and domestic abuse, which are really difficult things to integrate in the normal African narrative. In the dialogues that we hold even with our friends. I am particularly drawn to mental health and will love for us to explore it further.
Ijeoma: It’s very interesting whenever you discuss issues like mental health within African societies or here in the diaspora. You can discuss Malaria or kidney failure or anything that a white man can go through that a black man can go through. But when you discuss mental health, it is not something that a black person can go through?
It’s interesting how we think our bodies are supposed to carry a lot of pain without breaking down. And it’s interesting because I have heard Africans who are very educated say “what are you talking about, this doesn’t happen to us, and it’s not part of our DNA”.
I think it’s important that we don’t deny mental health exists.
Once at a reading in New York, a man thanked me for talking and writing about mental health. He said he was telling his people that he is depressed and they were telling him that it’s all in his head, that Africans don’t get depressed.
A lot of people leave home and they don’t fit in. I am not talking about leaving home and feeling sad one day, I am talking about seriously wanting to end it all. Seriously not understanding where you are. You leave home and probably for the first time you are being called black and expected to understand the history of blackness from outside your country where you’ve only been your ethnic group till now. You experience racism for the first time. And because being black is associated with being bad, you have to stop yourself from internalizing this and this leads to some of the worst cases of depression you can think of. You feel isolated and with isolation comes a feeling of not being able to talk to someone back home. Because they will say you are in America, what are you talking about? You have so many opportunities that someone back home doesn’t have, how dare you be ungrateful. How dare you talk about being depressed, what are you depressed about? So you have a sense of guilt.
Gaamangwe: I am glad you talked about how people in the diaspora experience culture shock and racism. Even in the smallest ways. People always looking at you and how things are no longer concepts. You captured this perfectly in your poem, Diasporic Blues –
“So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”
I want to talk about this. The idea of home and the idea of belonging in a space or a place.
Ijeoma: I wrote Diaspora Blues because I came back to Nigeria in 2013 after a long time. Unfortunately, I felt very much displaced. It was a little bit of romanticizing the past, entirely my fault. I had this idea that I will come back and I will perfectly fit into the space that I left. But it’s always impossible for us to do that. Because there is the fact that I had grown up so much as a person. And understanding the dynamics of who I am and being abroad and people saying “where are you from” and still getting this question after so many years. I asked myself where I really belong.
“Not American enough,
not Nigerian enough,
I am Ijeoma enough. And that’s okay”.
That was the first draft of that poem in 2013. When I was writing my book I went back to this poem and felt that it will only resonate with people who are Nigerian and American. I wanted to write something that will include everyone. And it was a very sad poem for me. Short but very sad, it was very personal.
Belonging and the concept of home for a lot of people is wherever they decide home is. But that can be a very difficult thing for refugees and political asylum seekers. Sometimes immigrating to a country and understanding that they don’t have papers that technical recognize them as complete human beings in a society. It is much more than my perspective because belonging is such a complex issue.
A lot of people don’t have that opportunity to come back home like I do. To have a place that they can call home. It might not be exactly what I expected it to be but it’s as close as possible to what I can call home. It is home. Some people leave and they can’t come back.
I explore home in so many ways. In language, food, clothing and our religion. And these are major things that people bring with them. My personal story is I felt displaced. So I have this concept of home and another foreign idea of home and what I can bring back. And I am sort of in the middle. I am bringing from this place. Some things I cannot change. Like the way I talk. Or maybe the way I think now. I cannot change that. It will be sort of regressing from me to go back to how I was before I left. I have changed and I am not going to apologize for things that took me so many years to unlearn. I am becoming this person that I am becoming right now.
Gaamangwe; I think that a lot of people resonated with that because we all experience that, maybe in different formats. I experienced a lot of that when I came back from India. It took me six months to get to a point where I felt like I am navigating this space easily now. But when I came back I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged because I outgrew this space, and this person and my home. It’s a very sad thing to realize because there is the question, where do I belong now?
I have to say I also really like original poem of Diasporic Blue. I resonate with that because after everything that’s what you have. You have yourself. The only constant is yourself. So the idea of home can never truly be a place. But you can have yourself as a home. And there is a lot of that in your work as well, you know like as a human you should belong to yourself and be okay with your skin and be proud of your skin and love yourself. Because I think this is the only home you can truly ever own.
Ijeoma: And we can also go a step further and say because society has always told us that home is belonging to a man as a woman. Home is when you get married and that is where you should find your home. And that is something that you should seek and be. There are a lot of people that we see now that are in our society, making terrible decisions staying in toxic relationships because they don’t have that concept of being alone and being home alone, by themselves. I can find home within myself.
Gaamangwe: This is really powerful because I think we need to change the narrative to that. All of us we grow up being told that we should aspire for that. Especially as girls. We should aspire for a husband, and for love with a man. I get so pissed off nowadays if I see those articles about how to make him fall in love with you or how to be a perfect wife.
Ijeoma: Yes! I remember as we were talking and you mentioned how some men don’t acknowledge that they are privileged and how we have to inform them but as ridiculous as I might sound I think we are not here to teach men anything. I feel like we spend so much time trying to lecture or trying to school others.
A couple of years back I was talking to my brother and he said you know the concept of feminism is simple, equal rights for women and men. The idea that a woman should be able to do whatever they want, a woman should be able to think this way, a woman should be able to act this way without being insulted or demeaned, I am not going to teach you that. That is common human decency. I think a lot of time men has this lazy idea that women should have to teach them the basic concept of humanity. Feminism is the basic concept of humanity. It is human right.
Gaamangwe: Exactly. We should focus more on ourselves. Building our own homes. Having the narratives we want to be having by ourselves as women. I think it will start there. It will start with empowered women. And the system will organically change, I think. Slowly but surely. I think we have done a lot of educating and at some point people just then choose what they want to take out of the whole thing then we lose the whole intention.
I think it’s time now for us to focus on ourselves and realize that we are powerful enough, on our own, by ourselves. We should empower ourselves because we are dangerous this way. So now, I want us to pivot to the idea of self-care and belonging to one self. Why it’s so vital right now with all the chaos that’s happening right now in the world.
Ijeoma: I think we sort of lose ourselves in the whole chaos, we have been taught as women to take care of others before taking care of ourselves. It is sort of others first. And it’s then passed on and on. And even when we say no we even question that no. Yes, I can take care of the people but I need to take care of myself first. I need to understand from within what I really want before I go outside. And we praise the always strong woman. This woman who is so empowered and powerful and she sort of doesn’t break down. Like she is a mule or something. There is the idea that if you put yourself first then you are selfish. And they make you feel guilt for that. That the idea of taking care of yourself is a selfish act. We want women to keep on going without breaking down. A romanticized idea of a strong woman.
But this also reflects in men. Hyper masculinity. I have a friend who lost his father and two weeks later I was talking to him and asking “how do you feel?” and he said “I want to cry but I am a man. I have to be a man”. And I told him “You are a son that just lost his father, do you not understand that it’s okay to cry?” This is the toxic idea that a man is not allowed to weep, to show emotion, and to cry.
Society does such a disservice to young men and boys. This idea that to be a man you have to conceal your emotions. It can be very toxic.
Gaamangwe: Recently I was talking to Gbenga Adesina, in our dialogue and he said that we need to come back to the republic of kindness. To the republic of treating each other as human beings. Before anything else. Before our genders, our races, before whatever system, we can put in defining us. Can we just start from one human being to another?
When you were speaking I was feeling like they are so many systems that are so wrong in our world that we need to fix but also its kind of overwhelming because what do we start with. Do we start with empowering the girl child or in that way we are doing another disservice to the boy child because our focus is on the girl child? There are so many dialogues and theories and discourses that we have to touch on so we can create a better world.
Ijeoma: Step back. You have to break it down and say this is what I am passionate about, and this is what I am going to discuss and follow through on. But it’s not like you are saying you won’t talk about everything else but rather about what is most important to you. And do whatever you can, wherever you are. That has always been my motto. I wrote something that says start where you are. Just start you know.
I think I could have gotten overwhelmed if I listened to everyone else but myself. I will have gotten overwhelmed if before writing I sort of started following other people’s voices but mine. It’s important to not overwhelm ourselves, that’s where self-care comes in. It’s very important.
For me if I am not focus then I am all over the place. The idea that speaking about the girl child means not speaking about the boy child, it’s very important that we understand that the playing field has never been leveled. It has never been to the advantage of the girl. No matter where you go.
The concept is equal right for women and men. The concept is choice for girls. Historically and presently, women are at the losing end. We can definitely get into this narrative that if we are discussing about the girl child then it means that we are not discussing about the boy child. Or we cannot discuss about the boy child. And it’s very important for us not to do that. Because that sort of narrative is something that a lot of misogynists use. Oh you know these feminists, that’s what they do. But really we are talking about genital mutilations and child marriages in Africa, Asia and Middle East. We are talking about the fact that a girl at the age of fourteen is being married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather. We are talking about the fact that girls are not allowed to go to school. We are talking about honor killing. And this is happening right now.
The idea that when we are talking about this very important issue then it means we are not interested in talking about the man or the boy. It deviates from the narrative and what we are trying to say.
The concept of an educated woman is such a feared concept in so many places. And you ask yourself why? Why is it that a woman that cannot be silenced is a very dangerous woman?
Gaamangwe; That’s true. I want to now talk about Questions for Ada. Ada means daughters right?
Ijeoma: Yes. Actually Ada in Igbo means first daughter. It means every first daughter of the house.
Gaamangwe: Interesting. So I am interested in what this work set out to do, the dialogues and discourses and seeds it wanted to plant.
Ijeoma: Thank you for this question. When I was thinking about this work I thought a lot about the title. Originally I wrote in Tumblr and I used to ask these questions as poetry. And it started from there. And I started working with Questions for Ada and I shared with my friends and they told me to go with it because it was very authentic and personal for me. The book itself took me so long to bring it together. The book itself is in stages. It goes through different stages.
I was very close to my grandmother and my grandmother passed away a few years ago. My grandmother was an Ada, the first daughter in her house and my mother was also an Ada. A lot of my writings entwines different generations. It included the older generation, our mother generation and our generation. Those three particular generations. At the back I remember I wrote that we are writing for our mother and our mothers of our mothers and for our generations and for generations to come. So it was journey of these different people and writing their stories. I wanted to give voices not only to our generation but to others as well.
One particular poem I actually called Question for Ada. At first I wrote it for me. Then later on it went from that to Ada. It said –
Ijeoma, are you in love?
Is being a relationship hard work?
Do you write love poems for your lover?
Does your lover believe in you?
But sometimes I fear that my lover doesn’t comprehend her light.
What do you on those days?
I bathe her. I play her jazz. I feed her. I weep for her.
Describe her in a sentence.
Her eyes carries strength. Her words crush. She speaks love.
Ijeoma, are you in love?
Is being a relationship hard work?
Who is your lover?
So I changed Ijeoma and I put Ada. So that was the questions for Ada. There were tiny questions I asked. There is one where I asked –
Didn’t your mother carry herself well enough to make you feel like a God?
So inside the book there are very tiny questions I asked. The book is very unapologetic. It’s very feminist. In the very beginning of the book I wrote something called Genesis. I wrote –
In the beginning there were women.
So I am not trying to soften myself or play around or present one thing else. I wanted where our generation could read the book and see themselves in it.
That particular poem obviously you feel like you are lost or you understand that the lover is yourself. It feels like it’s very sad. But the beginning of the book is something like a discourse. I wanted a book that an immigrant could read. A black person can read. A woman could read. I wanted a book that was very true to who I am. And those aspects of who I am added to create this book.
That’s why anyone from wherever can still read it and see themselves in it. I wrote about what to tell your best friend when she is feeling depressed. Using African names. I wanted to write one thing that goes beyond love. I am writing about self-love in a way and so many other things. And the reception has been amazing. I have been very pleased with the love from the reader. I can’t wait to do more. I am encouraged to do more.
Gaamangwe: That’s amazing because I think every writer wants to do work that impacts the readers. And your work is powerful. It can be just one or two lines but when I read and I am altered forever. So you definitely have to keep doing this.
Ijeoma; Thank you so much for this. I am honored. I am honored that so many women from all parts of Africa are resonating and celebrating my work. It’s so exciting to be celebrated in not just one’s country. It’s very encouraging. I can’t wait to do more.