Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh
Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh is a native of Ozuja in the Okengwe community of Okene, one of a million plus Ebira language speakers in the world. His work has appeared in The Masters Review, QZ, The Offing, Necessary Fiction, Catapult, Adda, AFREADA, CircleShow, AWP Writers’ Chronicle, and the Goethe Institute anthology: Limbe to Lagos. More at www.calebajinomoh.com
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and Nigeria, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Caleb. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Caleb: Happiness, for my friends, for my family, and of course, for me. I begin with those two constituencies because that’s really how it’s played out. I shared the news with family in Lagos and Luton, friends in Leipzig, Berlin, Virginia, Sao Paulo and Austin. And they all had a variation of “I needed this right now, thank you.”
Nkateko: I am so happy that this good news has reached so many people all over the world. We are all in need of some encouragement right now and it is great that you could offer that to others through this amazing achievement. In this video, you mentioned that you hoped readers of “Rites Evasion Maneuvers” would relate to your frustration regarding funeral scams. I certainly do, but it is something I keep quiet about because I have seen what happens to young people who speak against practices that have become a mainstay in their communities, even when those practises are corrupt. Several people in my family are part of “burial societies” that collect money every month so that in the event that someone in the family dies, a lump sum is paid out to the affected society member to ease the financial burden. However, if that society member fails to pay their monthly fee for three consecutive months, they do not receive a payout when a death occurs in their family, regardless of how long they were part of the burial society. I find this terribly unfair. I have been thinking about all the people who have lost their income sources during this time and are unable to make monthly payments on anything, let alone funeral policies and burial societies.
Apart from your general disdain for funeral scams, is there a particular incident that led to you writing “Rites Evasion Maneuvers”?
Caleb: You’re kind. To your specific question about my prompt, I didn’t think of it at the time. But in late 2018, I went to my older brother’s wife’s hometown for her dad’s funeral. I stayed for an entire weekend and interacted with all kinds of parties who always seemed to be scheming about the dead body. From the dead man’s tenants, to his widow, to his oldest son, to the in-laws, to his alumni, neighbors, landlord association, church, and even people from his job, which he had long retired from. Everybody had an agenda at the funeral. It was crazy, exhausting. And I felt out of place, felt like I was overcrowding the room by being there for my brother and his wife. I felt like I was part of the problem. I realized my brother felt what I was feeling too, only heavier. Since so much was expected of him at every turn. I sucked it up and survived the whole thing. But it didn’t really come together until I was at the airport, heading back to Lagos. I fell into a random conversation with two brothers who had just come to bury their mom. We got talking and they began telling me about what a draining last two weeks they’d had. And I remember thinking to myself, it really shouldn’t be so stressful to lay your loved ones to rest. Of course, I didn’t write the story until a year later.
Nkateko: In the beginning of the story, Brother Three seems more emotionally affected by his father’s death than Brother One and Brother Two are. I can understand this because he is not the mastermind behind the funeral scheme, but his role brings much-needed empathy into the dynamic; he even sympathises with Brother Two after he makes a mistake that leads to them having to “move up the scheme.” At first glance I even thought that Brother Three was the weak link in the chain, but his gentle approach proved to have been beneficial in the conception of the scheme as it is he who discovered the modus operandi of the First Mourners and informed his brothers. Towards the end of the story, it becomes even clearer that the scheme would have failed if not for his ingenuity. I sense that this was a maneuver on your part, allowing readers to focus on Brother One and Brother Two’s actions on the surface, while the real brain behind the operation was laying low, waiting to strike at the end. Throughout the story we discover that nothing is ever as it seems, so it should come as no surprise that a character who seems innocent turns out to be quite the opposite, but it is still a shock when the truth is revealed. The layers of the scheme are so elaborate that readers, who are merely bearing witness to the story’s events, are also blindsided by the brothers’ final act. I am very impressed.
Caleb: You’re a smart and generous reader. Can you read everything else I am working on? Please and thank you! There’s a draft of this story where Brother Three is silent from start to finish and he is not acknowledged at all. Thankfully I had readers who understood what was going on and saw clearer than I did what was possible. These readers encouraged me to turn up the volume on Brother Three just enough that he is present but not discovered, like a specter. Something that’s going to sound real corny here but very true: I was just as surprised by the ending as anyone.
“Not only do we have a responsibility to each other, we have a responsibility to the larger society; writers/artists must recognize their scale of influence, if nothing else, of the work they make.”
Nkateko: Of course, I’ll gladly read anything you write! It’s great that you have readers who can help you see which elements are missing in a story. How early (or late) in the process of writing a story do you consult with others for feedback and guidance? You mention that various drafts of the story exist and that you were as surprised by the ending as your readers are, so I am curious about the process of tweaking a story until it is in its final form. When do you decide, word count restrictions aside, that a story is complete?
Caleb: Thank you! It’s strange because I am a very private writer and even my closest friends have to ask me for work before I show them. But at the same time, I am not betrothed to any sentence or idea no matter how good it sounds. I am able to show work at any stage, if I trust you. The other thing is that I am not afraid of writing badly. So for me the work is always under construction.
The good thing about being blind to the next unwritten five sentences is that at some point if your last written sentence refuses to develop into something more, you’re left no choice but to circle back and look for a nice location to situate your full stop. Also, I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a complete story. I’d be curious to know what you would consider a complete story. I think a good place to stop is wherever the writer runs out of ideas. But all great stories stop wherever the story, not the writer, runs out of breath. Because they’re smarter than the writer.
Nkateko: “But all great stories stop wherever the story, not the writer, runs out of breath.” I think this sums it up. I am learning through this conversation that writers go wherever the story takes them, not the other way around.
Do you have a favourite story that you keep going back to? You speak of having no choice but to “circle back” during your revision process as a writer but I am interested in the idea of circling back as a reader as well. Tell me about the stories that give you no choice but to return to them.
Caleb: You know, this is enlightening for me too. Some things you don’t think about until you’re led there by a smart person. Thank you for leading.
Between “A Short History of Hairdressing” and “The Story of Mat Israelson” (Julian Barnes – The Lemon Table), I’ve probably read them fifty times. Just because whenever I get too invested in celebrating my own writing, all I need is a page of these stories to bottle-feed me humility. “The Mysterious Stranger” by Mark Twain is one I mention a lot but I’m terrified to reread because it did so much damage the first time. “Flowering Judas” by Katherine Anne Porter because it holds all the possible layers of a short story. Grace Paley’s “Wants” because every sentence in it is a novel. Every story in Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson. Taeko Kono’s stories. Etgar Keret’s. For their relentless wisdom. Alice Munro and William Trevor’s stories. For language and depth of compassion.
Nkateko: I want to go back to you “being blind to the next unwritten five sentences.” Is the excitement of not knowing where a story will take you what keeps you writing? I can imagine it would be difficult to come to a point where you feel you have run out of stories to write, but the way you put it, it is as if as long as there is (proverbial) ink, there will be stories to tell. Have you ever felt uninspired or out of ideas for a long period of time? How long did you stay in that state and what helped you to recover from it? You mentioned that reading the work of others has bottle-fed you humility regarding your own work, but does reading also help you get back into your groove when you have been struggling to write?
Caleb: Apart from the fact that I’m pretty much unspectacular at everything else? Absolutely. I couldn’t stomach a story that’s already laid out from start to finish. I don’t think one can run out of stories, no. But one can run out of things to say in a way that is interesting. Somebody smarter than me has said that a writer’s themes/concerns are pretty limited and eventually there’s only so many fun ways to ring a church bell.
The struggle for me has been staying with one idea before taking on the next one. Sometimes, it’s a test of the idea’s virility, see how long it can last in my brain’s waiting room. But yes, I’ve had moments when I felt the work wasn’t going well, my treat for writing something I don’t care about.
Absolutely, reading is a writer’s cocaine (there’s somebody in Abidjan reading this thinking cocaine is a writer’s cocaine stfu). Reading magnificent stuff, anyway. The kind of writing that gives you a grand kick in the butt, sends you running to your desk. But look, Abidjan reader, remember what I say is only truest for me.
Nkateko: It’s interesting that you mention cocaine. The other day, I was reading an article that listed some of the greatest works of literature that were written under the influence of drugs. I will not share the link here because that is not the type of content I want to promote, but I want to talk about it because I could not stand to see the word “greatest” and “drugs” in the same sentence. I lost my childhood best friend to a heroin overdose eight years ago. She died before we both turned twenty-one, an age that had a lot of significance for us as we were growing up. In 2018, while I was studying in the United States and interning at the Samaritan Daytop Centre in Staten Island, New York, I received training to administer Narcan (naloxone), a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. During the training I was observant and asked a lot of questions, but when I got back to campus I could not stop thinking about my late friend. There I was successfully completing training programs, but I was several years too late to save her.
You speak jokingly about the Abidjan reader out there, who might be taking cocaine to enhance their creativity, but I want to know what your thoughts are on this. If a fellow writer were to say to you that their best stories are written under the influence of drugs, what would your response be? Is it a case of “to each his own”, or do we have a responsibility towards one another as writers and creatives, to discourage dangerous behaviours? How do we propose safer alternatives, such as “reading magnificent stuff”, as you say? I know it sounds silly to say “choose reading over drugs” as if one can overcome an addiction by picking up a book, but I wonder if there is a way to challenge the notion that mind-altering substances are an antidote to writer’s block?
Caleb: I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. Thank you for sharing this.
I’d look them in the eye and say congrats, please proceed to social distance from me. Now, I understand some people write from pain/misery, through pain/misery or to escape pain/misery, and could use some help with numbness, but even then you can’t rely on that all the time, make it a joyful habit. I come from the position that your best work is done in the right frame of mind, with all your faculties unimpeded. If anything, the work is its own high. If it’s any good, in my narrow experience, you should feel out of body anyway. I think you’re onto something significant here with the notion of artistic responsibility, something that is not talked about as often as it should. Not only do we have a responsibility to each other, we have a responsibility to the larger society; writers/artists must recognize their scale of influence, if nothing else, of the work they make. I think a good chunk of the answer lies in your last question: if the substance is mind altering, what long term good does it do you whose primary tool is the mind? That prevalent fallacy of the artist as a paragon of instability is very problematic. I’d begin there. When you’re blocked, perhaps stop to reconsider the project’s WHY, or step away and let it breathe.
Nkateko: I have often felt that the inability to step away from a project and “let it breathe” is largely influenced by the pressure to keep up with other writers. I have often felt this pressure myself. When I am in a rut and not able to create anything worth reading, it suddenly seems as if everyone else has a book coming out, or a new piece published in a prestigious literary journal. We want the progress but not the process, and we often wait for a well-established writer to say that a book took them five years to complete before we believe that there is no need to rush a project. You’re absolutely right about the importance of considering the long-term implications of drug use, and I truly hope that our friend in Abidjan will remember this.
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I enjoyed reading “Rites Evasion Maneuvers” and getting some behind-the-scenes insight on your writing and revision process for this story and your work in general. Congratulations once again on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I wish you the very best with your writing going forward and I look forward to being in conversation with you again in the future.
Caleb: It’s a bizarre thing, this keeping up with other writers. I have had those days. I still slip into them, but it is not very helpful. Not for sanity, not for completion of your own work. “We want the progress but not the process” should be on a billboard. Here’s something I’ve started doing, which might be helpful to you. Whenever somebody else publishes a book, I go “ooh, now they’ve figured you out.” It’s better than suffocating oneself with inessential envy. Just easier to be happy for people, you know? Besides, writing is so maddeningly subjective that rejection and acceptance are essentially the same person behind the same curtain saying yes or no at different times for reasons that fluctuate. Hear that Abidjan reader?
Thank you for an exciting, smart conversation. You can make anyone seem cool.
Thank you again and I wish you all the best with your own work. Everyone who’s still in the conversation by this point should check out Nkateko’s TEDx talk!
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest work has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.
2 thoughts on “Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh”
This is an interesting, intelligent,banter, away from the drudgery of interviews.
Love the energy between you two and the witty retorts. Huh?