Koffi Addo Non-Fiction Shortlisted Writer: A Dialogue With Karis Onyemenam
Karis Onyemenam is a poet, writer and freelance photographer. Her short story was recently published in the inaugural issue of FLY zine, an online magazine that curates the experiences of women and non-binary people of color at the University of Cambridge. Her Koffi Addo submission is part of a broader project that explores conflicting identities and the immigrant experience.
This conversation happened between a green bedroom in Gaborone, Botswana and a crowded airport somewhere in the world.
Gaamangwe: Karis, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Koffi Addo Prize. How are you feeling about it? What does being shortlisted for this prize mean to you?
Karis: To your first question, It’s very exciting. I really enjoyed writing the piece I submitted for the Koffi Addo Prize and I was proud of how it all came together. That being said, it’s always nice to have your work recognized, especially by an organisation such as Writivism. I see being shortlisted for this price as a huge opportunity, and one I am most grateful for.
Gaamangwe: That’s great. What is the story of how you came to write the piece you submitted? And how was the process of writing something that is so personal?
Karis: I would say my “process” is the same regardless of if I’m writing about a personal experience or characters I made up that are extremely far removed from what I’ve personally experienced. I just keep at it until it shapes into what I envisioned. In terms of the inspiration for this piece in particular, it came out of an extremely frustrating day where I just felt extremely inadequate and had to take a step back and realise I was comparing my ability to people who were way ahead of the curve, and the more I thought of why I think that way, it kind of took me back to the distinct experiences that made up the story. And from that point, I just ran with the original idea until it became the piece I submitted.
Gaamangwe: Feelings of inadequacy are such powerful emotions. And your experience with this powerful emotion parallel to different children is even more powerful. Were you always consciously aware of this or the realization of being compared to them came together in the story? What new meanings did you discover within and after writing this piece?
Karis: I wouldn’t say those feelings of inadequacy were always a direct result of being compared to a child. I see the “child” in this story as part lived experience, part metaphor. I definitely have had distinct experiences in my life (described in the story) where I felt inadequate and then worse still when somebody would be helpful enough (don’t you just hate that) to point out to me that what I was struggling with was something a child could easily accomplish. But I think in a broader sense the child in my story is the person or thing in somebody else’s that diminishes their progress.
At the end of the day, the person making the comparison thinks they’re trying to push you because if a child can easily do it, what’s your excuse? But I think the person on the receiving end just feels like if they’re beginning at such a disadvantage, so what’s the point? And that was where I got to at the end of writing this piece. That yes, there may be a million children who may do what you’re struggling with easily, or you may have a million disadvantages going into something, but that isn’t a reason to stop trying.
Gaamangwe: Yes, that makes sense. Our struggles are really unique and valid. Reading the part about the femur and the metal family was absolutely jarring. It felt torturous. How was your experience in travelling back in time to this traumatic part of your experience? What was on the other side of finishing the story in terms of this part of the story?
Karis: That was definitely the most difficult part. The whole experience (which lasted for roughly a year) was something I blocked out and don’t really like going to because it was really traumatic at the time and kind of still is. With time, it’s harder to imagine the pain but I still remember what it felt like to go through that experience and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t think that sentiment has changed with writing this story, but I was definitely glad that I was able to confront it enough to create something I was proud of. It makes me feel like going through the experience had a purpose, aside from the medical benefits of course.
Gaamangwe: Yes, the experience had another purpose. It was personally eye-opening to read about a traumatic surgery experience. Mostly because we have few stories written and spoken about this. So, thank you for sharing like this. On purpose, what purpose did you want this story to serve? And your other writings? Also, what experiences are you interested in exploring in your works?
Karis: Right now, an issue that speaks to me on a personal level is migration. The world is becoming more global and most people will spend their lives away from where they identify as “home” and I think that comes with its challenges. In The child and it’s many faces I was trying to address one aspect of the challenges immigrants tend to face, which is having to start at ground zero at something, be it learning a language, adjusting to a new culture etc. I plan to explore this theme further.
Gaamangwe: That is an important and necessary theme Karis! I wish you all the best with that and Writivism. Thank you for joining me here.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted writers for Writivism Prizes.