Ukamaka Olisakwe grew up in Kano, Nigeria and now lives in Vermont. In 2014, she was named one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40 by the UNESCO World Book Capital for the Africa 39 Project. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary fellowship in writing from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. And in 2018, she won the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program.
Ukamaka, a finalist for the Miles Moorland Writing Scholarship, has had her work appear in the New York Times, Longreads, The Rumpus, RATTLE, Waxwing, Jalada, Brittle Paper, Hunger Mountain, Sampsonian Way, and more.
BY OPE ADETAYO
This interview happened between a room in Ilorin and Aba, and concluded in Lagos.
Ope Adetayo: Your story, After Three children, Reclaiming My Body and My Mind, recounts the aftermath of traumatic child delivery. This is not a common story considering the spatial context — Nigeria — and the sensitivity of childbirth. This story is reactionary in the sense that it shatters the myth of childbearing as complete bliss. How did you come to terms with writing this story?
Ukamaka Olisakwe: I think it was a choice between insanity and truth. Every time I listened to certain songs about sweet motherhood, or heard the stories about the perfect childbirth experience where the mother emerged unscathed at the end of the story, or even when I saw those photos of the smiling, perfect mother holding her chubby beautiful child, they triggered something unpleasant inside me. Those songs, those images, had long become the single story of motherhood I grew up to. They said childbirth completes a woman and gives her prestige. They said the woman hears the cry of her baby at the end of a birthing ordeal and she goes on to live happily ever after. It turned out that that wouldn’t be my story. And there were no kind stories out there in my immediate community about my experience that I could connect to. Everywhere I turned to; mothers performed perfection or spoke in derision about mothers whose husbands chased after girls with firm bodies.
The long history of patriarchy had made it impossible for people like me to speak up about our bodily devastation. It already told me that I failed when I needed a device to help me with the birth of my first child. An aunt said I must never tell anyone about it, especially my husband, or I would be considered weak. So, when I realized my postpartum complication, I thought I had failed beyond redemption; and I couldn’t tell my husband about it. Speaking up felt like stripping myself naked in the middle of a marketplace, and you know what that means in Nigeria: it means you have become an object of ridicule. We are not kind to the mentally ill. Which was why I chose silence, and it almost ruined me.
It took leaving home to shatter that silence. It took reading a lot of books on trauma and having conversations with a new community of writers I met in Vermont. All these helped put some distance between me and my story. I learned that with the second person point-of-view I, essentially, project my experiences onto the stranger called You; it was a form of self-care. It afforded me the comfort and protection I needed to write that story in the raw. But then, midway through my writing, I switched back to the first person; I owned that story. After I had successfully penned the first draft, I returned to the beginning and reverted to the first person point-of-view. The rest is what you will find in Longreads.
Ope: Postpartum depression is largely disregarded in our local traditions as the child is the focus of childbearing. This makes women mere instruments of reproduction. Your story casts, in my opinion, a new light on the issue of reproduction because it centralizes a much-ignored aspect of the reproduction system. Do you feel we can discuss postpartum depression as a legacy of patriarchy?
Ukamaka: I think not discussing postpartum depression is the legacy of patriarchy, not the illness itself. Because of the silence this illness had been shrouded in. Because we say to women who suffer postpartum complications that they had failed. Because we blame the women when their partners become terrible.
What patriarchy has done is to heap an unhealthy burden on the woman. She is expected to be perfect; she must be firm for her husband or she will be blamed when he philanders, which should not really be a problem because a woman should be able to walk out of an unhealthy relationship. Sadly, our society does not know how to accommodate the single woman, not to talk of the divorced. Where I come from, the divorced are banished from their town’s association because these communities grant her access only on the condition that she clinches onto a man’s name. There are layers to these complications. It was why I did not speak up about my complications much earlier, but I think we have gotten to the stage where it should be okay to talk about these things.
“I think not discussing postpartum depression is the legacy of patriarchy, not the illness itself. Because of the silence this illness had been shrouded in. Because we say to women who suffer postpartum complications that they had failed.“
Ope: Your statement that not being able to discuss postpartum trauma is a legacy of patriarchy throws light on women being forced to rigidly perform roles. I think not being able to discuss trauma is a general condition of our societies. Do you see postpartum trauma as somewhat different from other trauma in the way it is still being treated by the society because it is the most obscure and hardly discussed? For example, we are in the age where people can come out to talk about their kind of depression but not postpartum depression.
Ukamaka: Where I come from, I think depression, generally, was previously dismissed as some demonic attack, but people are now openly speaking up about their experiences; there are diverse materials our people are gleaning from that are now the education we need on how the human body and mind function. These conversations have opened our eyes on the form this illness can take, and how it can be managed and even treated when we listen to each other; when we pay attention and seek medical help.
But what I didn’t see always happening in our community is the conversation about the depression associated with childbearing. This is because we expect a certain perfection from the woman. We expect her to be the good mother, to love and bond immediately with her babies no matter whatever her body and mind have gone and are going through; to perform motherhood and wifehood without complaint. Already, as a girl, we have told her she must fold herself into something acceptable to be deemed a wife, and she must be the virtuous, must retain a man’s name, must please that man sexually else she is to be blamed if he becomes a terrible husband, if he philanders.
We expect her to make the man the priority, no matter what, and this relegates her feelings and self-care to the background. If she must dwell on the self, the conversation must revolve around the man; every other thing is reserved for the periphery. Ironically, this conversation is already centering the man in the conversation about the woman.
However, I am glad that we are moving into a time where it is okay for the woman to talk about what happened to her body during and after childbirth without feeling that old, pressing shame. I suffered in silence because I didn’t want to be considered weak. I no longer have to. No woman should, too.
Ope: How do you think space resolves or helps to manage traumas? You travelled to Vermont, United States and it seems that in the last paragraphs of your story, you have come out of depression. Still the same body but different spaces; one that bears rigidity and the other that bears the possibility of forgetting. Can you relate to the power of space?
Ukamaka: I don’t think the body ever forgets the memories of her trauma, no matter the space she inhabits. The body learns to manage those memories—those keloids and scars, the horror from time past—and she carries it from space to space, and into the future. But she never forgets— at least, it is so in my own case.
What moving away from home did for me was the possibility of processing what happened to my body. I was able to openly talk about my experiences without the old shame weighing me down. I stopped considering myself a weak woman, a failure— all those unkind terms we use in describing women who suffer postpartum complications. With the distance from the source of trauma, I learned to embrace the fact that our bodies are different; that some women can comfortably undergo multiple vaginal deliveries and turn out fine, while others don’t. And that some women suffer postpartum depression and others don’t; that some women easily bond with their babies and others don’t; that our bodies react differently to childbirth and it is natural— these diverse experiences— so long as we aren’t punished for how our bodies chose to react to childbirth.
Ope: “I danced and sang along with the other women, happy to be performing this rite of passage, this celebration of suffering that would guarantee my continuous membership in this pantheon of Virtuous Women. ’’
This paragraph is heavy in a way to me. It reveals the idea that women, even men, generally understand the repressive structure but are still culturally bound to it. Despite culture being fluid, what do you think still binds people to cultural norms?
Ukamaka: I think people hold onto the old ways of doing things because changing even a bit of it often feels like shedding a part of themselves. However, culture is the way the people before us did things, and those before them also did things in a different way. It is not always easy to change our old practices, but that change is slow and gradual. We always reassess our way of life and tweak what we do not like, while also preserving what we do like.
One of my favourite petty disposition online is taunting men who rant about how women of ‘these days’ are leaving their husbands. These men always use their mothers as yardstick for measuring the present-day woman, as if we, ourselves, didn’t or don’t have mothers. They say that their mothers stayed married, endured, and still live together, unlike the ‘girls of these days’ who walk away from their marriages, impatient. What they don’t talk about—and I believe this deliberate ignorance is a form of gaslighting— is that many of our mothers stayed in their abusive marriages because, what else can they do? They lived at a time when the woman is punished—viciously and shockingly—for walking away from an unhealthy relationship. My aunt had to move far away to Lagos, just so she wouldn’t endure the scorn that awaited her in my community. These are some of the themes I looked at in my novel, Ogadinma, which is coming out in June.
Ope: Congratulations on your forthcoming book, Ogadinma. Ogadinma roughly translates as “It will be well.” What are we to expect? A familiar terrain or something very different?
Ukamaka: The book is a response to my 2015 essay published by The New York Times in which I shared so much hope for a Buhari-led administration. But the administration has failed me in many ways. So, this is my attempt to show how the past is infinitely linked to the present and even the future, and why we must never forget where the rain began beating us—as my people will always say.
Ope: In Africa, marriage comes with the major responsibility of taking care of the children. Your story revolves round the delicate subject of children and self. There is a longtime argument as to what the priority of a woman as a wife should be in a time of conflict: herself or the child(ren)? With the complex web of affection and intimacy and the obvious need for a mother to care about, herself, what do you think about the position of the mother as children are being primarily groomed to emotionally identify with the mother?
Ukamaka: My story actually explores what childbirth—and not children themselves—does to the body, and how my mind was weighed down by the societal expectation that made it difficult for me to speak up about my trauma. I do not argue with people who believe that the primary role of a woman is motherhood or wifehood, as I also do not argue with those who believe a man is accorded more respect when he marries. What I am most interested in are the practices that make it difficult for a woman to reject these expectations and choose herself first, and conditions that make it difficult for her to speak up about her experiences with motherhood and wifehood.
Ope: Lastly, if you could imagine a society of your choice as regards gender balance and childbearing, what would it be?
Ukamaka: It would be a society where it is okay to talk about our different motherhood and childbirth experiences, especially how unpleasant and devastating those journeys can be, without being unfairly dismissed as flawed, imperfect or inferior.
Ope Adetayo is currently a year three student of English at the University of Ilorin. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Agbowo, Sahara Reporters, Fragbits, Commonwealth Correspondent and GIMUN Blog. He is also an editor at Fragbits.