Vivian Ogbonna was a Goldman Sachs Scholar at the Enterprises Development Center of the Pan Atlantic University, Lagos, and currently an alumnus of the Cherie Blair Mentoring Women in Business Program. She is an Interior Decorator by profession but in February 2014, the muse found her and she started writing. In 2015, she was a participant in the Writivism Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria. Her short story, A BALL OF THREAD, was long-listed for the Writivism Short Story Competition and published in Roses for Betty, the 2015 Writivism Anthology. In March 2016, she participated in the Writivism creative nonfiction workshop in Accra, Ghana. She has also been published in The New Black Magazine, Olisa TV, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times Blogs and My Mind Snaps.
This conversation took place in a living room, while watching the crime channels, somewhere in Abuja, Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: Vivian, congratulations for being shortlisted for the Koffi Addo Prize! How are you feeling about this? What does it mean to you to be shortlisted, particularly for “A Long Way From Home”?
Vivian: I’m excited. Last year I made 19 submissions to different journals and most of them were rejected. So this is a consolation that I’m not such a terrible writer after all.
Gaamangwe: I am happy for you. Yes, you are not a terrible writer. I for one could clearly and vividly picture all the travels in the story, the people encountered and the emotions felt. What did you want to explore with this story? Why was writing these experiences important to you?
Vivian: I wanted to explore culture shock and, through my own experiences, show the bewilderment and anxieties that come with being in a new social environment. I wanted to show how different our realities are and how varied the meaning of ‘normal’ can be. I also wanted to say that no matter how alienated and confused we feel in our situations, there’s usually someone like us—someone who has lost his way, either in the physical sense [like I did on that first trip] or metaphorically; someone who’s trying to make sense of his life.
Gaamangwe: I enjoyed reading your story, I could relate. It reminded me of the concept of “Soul of the world” by Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist. The universal language that exists with everyone in the world. The way in which somehow we still manage to communicate with each other, without talking. I cannot count the number of times I have reached my destination through interacting with people who couldn’t speak one word in English. It’s really powerful. How did these experiences expand you and your worldview?
Vivian: Stepping into worlds that are more advanced, more complex and therefore, more intriguing than where I’m coming from; meeting people who are totally different from me and those I have known all my life; having encounters that are outside what I consider my normal – all these can be exhilarating, frustrating and intimidating all at once. These experiences present me with the ‘other’ even as I sometimes feel I am that ‘other’ in the new environment. Consequently, my heart and mind have stretched beyond what I can put into words. Most importantly, my experiences help me question things more.
Gaamangwe: What are some of those things specifically that you started to question because of your travels? What also changes about your perspective of your life and your world view?
Vivian: Naturally, the disparity between Nigeria and these other countries became more glaring, especially in the area of infrastructure. I had never really cared to confront these differences before, perhaps because I had no basis for comparison.
This also led me to start questioning the existence of God and organised Religion. More significantly, I started questioning my place and purpose in life. I still haven’t found answers to all the questions but when I started writing in February 2014, most of the soul searching and the angst that came with it stopped. I think writing was the release I needed.
Gaamangwe: That’s incredible. It is through that which is not, that we can appreciate what is. Travel also gives you an opportunity to look back on your country in a different way. How did your perception about being Nigerian shift? Did you also start to notice and appreciate some aspects about Nigeria?
Vivian: I had to accept and own the fact that Nigeria is who I am. It’s a space that’s full of contradictions, but I place I love all the same. Our warmth and large-heartedness, our energy and the clichéd can-do-spirit, our resilience, creativity and ingenuity – all these and more are what I appreciate about Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: Thank you for your reflections Vivian. All the best of luck with Writivism!
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted writers for the 2017 Writivism Prizes.