AKO Caine Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Erica Sugo Anyadike
Erica Sugo Anyadike works in television. She also writes short stories and has been published by Kwani, Writivism, Femrite and Karavan. She has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. Whether she is writing for television or writing prose, Erica’s stories place African women at the centre of her narratives. She is particularly interested in complex representations of African women – rejecting simplistic portrayals of them in binary terms. She is currently writing a novel.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between Kenya and Algeria through Zoom and email.
Saliha: Hello Erica. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Erica: It’s wonderful to be on the AKO Caine Prize shortlist.
Writers (who write to be read) care about what readers think. Your first readers may be family, friends, other writers, or your editor but either way, at some point, you have to let your children venture out into the world and you’re going to get feedback. When some of that feedback entails being placed on a list that other writers that you admire have been placed on, it’s surreal, it really is.
I also wondered if I’d ever be able to achieve that facility with language. Would I ever be able to write a sentence as perfect as some of those that I’d read? I get a physical, visceral response to good writing. I have read other writers on the AKO Caine Prize shortlist before and I’ve gasped, gotten goosebumps, laughed, cried, the whole works. If even one person got that reaction from my work, I’d be happy. Sure you work on your craft, you constantly try to improve but still -imagine hearing that someone thinks that you’re good enough to be placed on a list with those luminaries, that you belong in that firmament.
There are times when you’re sitting alone and you write a sentence and you feel it, deep in your bones, that you’ve written a good sentence; that the language you’ve used and the intent you had have combined perfectly to achieve the effect you wanted. I think that intrinsic motivation is also important, maybe even more important because you can’t be on every shortlist or win every prize. As a character from my story says: “Remember we all crave approval.” You have to be satisfied with the work and with yourself but to have other people validate that is still thrilling. It’ll always be.
Saliha: I am really happy that being on the shortlist made you feel all these wonderful emotions. It is interesting what you say about approval and validation. Before I started reading and watching interviews with writers about their processes of writing, where they get inspiration or what they are trying to achieve with their stories, I never thought that validation is a need for most of them. I always thought that they write and never feel any need for feedback or at least they don’t wish to have it. It was a false assumption on my part. Your point about letting your children venture out into the world is very important, especially to hesitant writers who write to be read, like me. And hesitance escalates for me personally when I write about personal stuff or include elements of me in my writings that I know I would never otherwise disclose in other forms. Did you ever feel similar hesitance and uncertainty when you first started letting people read your work? How does it feel to put a part of yourself, feelings out there?
Erica: The more you improve in terms of craft, the less hesitation and uncertainty you feel. The thing about becoming a better writer is that you’re more confident about your ability to transmit your intent onto the page. Don’t get me wrong, how readers ultimately interpret your work is up to them, their experiences and the sum total of who they are that they bring to the reading experience. To that extent, the writer is an interlocutor.
However – that initial part of the conversation when you first write the story, that part you are solely responsible for, I never think of that initial part as putting myself on the page. I am a medium, the story is the medium. It’s the character that wants to come alive. But certain characters choose you maybe because you’re more open to them? Who knows? All I know is that I’m curious about complex women, women who, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, ‘run with the wolves’, women who Toni Morrison would describe as ‘dangerously free’, women like Nina Simone who ‘demand not to be misunderstood’, who challenge the bounds of what is considered acceptable in society. So when I write, I don’t write about myself, but I write to them and for them.
“Am I a feminist? Check. Am I an African woman? Check. I think occupying those spaces gives me a perspective that is different to those who occupy solely one or the other.”
Saliha: Those words about women are so beautiful and true. I used to take the subject of representation lightly. And I had misconceptions about black characters, having grown up with western movies, TV shows, and literature. I have only ever known certain tropes that involved black women, and I can say that “The Help” that has returned to the forefront last month was on my mind a lot when I thought about black women. It was not until later on when I started reading from black women’s perspectives that I understood my misconceptions. And now I look to all those movies, TV shows and literature under another light. So who tells the stories also matters. How did you come to wanting to tell women’s stories? Was there a special moment that told you those stories were what you wanted to tell, or was it an inner born curiosity and desire?
Erica: It’s interesting that you bring up representation. A lot of criticism, literary and film, talks about the Gaze; the White Gaze or the Male Gaze. What people don’t interrogate as much is the psychic toll internalising the Gaze can take on you. We need to guard against this as writers. Writers should always interrogate themselves, interrogate their privilege, their point of view, their reasons for writing. We need to be vigilant about not reproducing the same images that others have created of us and instead commit to reproducing our own. We need to ask who is at the centre of our narratives and why?
I’m not saying that we produce only what is “good” but that whatever we produce is deliberate and by design. There will always be room for interpretation but writers owe it to themselves to be methodical and to be curious. Let us understand also how years of conditioning can lull writers into accepting the primacy of dominant images when there is a whole world of people out there – even this bloc known as black women, is not homogenous. Diversity is very important to me. I’m not afraid of it because we (human beings) are more alike than we are different. We shouldn’t be afraid of the specific i.e. writing about Black women because the specific is the universal. We should not diminish our importance to make others feel comfortable. So in answer to your question, I have always wanted to tell these stories but had to learn to develop the tools and the confidence that would allow me to tell them the way I wanted to.
Saliha: You talk here about many important points. And I agree with you on that there is a whole world of people out there, and about the uniqueness of each individual story, no matter to which bloc they may belong to. Speaking of tools, I love reading stories written in original structures I didn’t see before and yours is so original—at least to me—because I didn’t yet encounter a story in the form you have written it. How did the idea of writing in that structure come about?
Erica: Not a lot of people write in the second person because it’s often considered challenging but there are a couple of writers that do it really well. One of these writers is a writer called Lorrie Moore and her collection of short stories, Self Help is told largely in the second person. I chose second person and the instructional manual style and structure because I was working with a protagonist that I knew a lot of people wouldn’t find likeable. One of the ways to encourage empathy is to shorten the narrative distance and to make the reader almost place themselves in the writer’s shoes. I wanted the reader to feel compassionate and complicit. I want readers to identify rather than to judge. Second person was perfect for that.
Saliha: I found myself cheering for the main character as I read the story. I always loved to check on the historical and social contexts before reading a story or as I am in the process of reading. My License and Master’s degrees dissertations were both readings of works in their historical and social contexts. Moving forward I delve now into the stories and novels I read without looking into any extra information beyond the text on the page until I finish them and review them as they are. I did the same with “How to Marry an African President”. And my after thoughts were of a woman who was flawed indeed but everyone else is flawed, but sadly for her, her flaws were seen as irredeemable in the society she was in. I then found that some saw it as a story about Grace Mugabe.
In an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “Shut up and Write” she talks about many important points I think many African writers have probably encountered or thought about, like her responsibility as a writer, the authenticity of her writings and about social issues deemed western issues rather than universal ones. She says in an excerpt, talking about a young man at a public event in Lagos who was no longer a fan of hers because she voiced her concerns about feminism and gay rights, “It wasn’t so much this young man’s disagreement that mattered, it was the language he used to voice it, the language of citizenship. I could not, as an African, claim to be a feminist because feminism and being African were mutually exclusive. Feminism was a sickness of the West, and one I had appropriated by being poisoned by the West. As for gay people, homosexuality was un-African and my supporting the rights of gay people meant a disregard of African culture”. Did you encounter the same reactions as a writer who is concerned primarily by portraying women?
Erica: I don’t understand the question. Is it about feminism or being considered Un-African? What parts for you made you think it might be either one of the two?
Saliha: Yes, I meant about being un-African because you talk about feminism.
Erica: I’ve never encountered those critiques. I think women before me have fought that battle ahead of me and paved the way. Am I a feminist? Check. Am I an African woman? Check. I think occupying those spaces gives me a perspective that is different to those who occupy solely one or the other. However, I also said the specific is universal and that craft matters. That’s why we love stories. Not for their politics but for their craft. If they smuggle in political themes then even better, but no one wants to be berated or lectured. If I can read an author from another completely different perspective and relate to him/her/them then why shouldn’t they read me? If I wanted to be didactic or straightforward, I would have chosen essays or academia. Fiction is my medium because you can be as subtle or as overt as you like and everything in between.
Saliha: I agree with you; we are all human beings after all. Erica, it has been a great pleasure to interview you. You have raised points I know I want to ponder on.
Are you working on anything new right now?
Erica: Yes, I’m working on a novel, about African women of course. These were some great questions, Saliha. Glad if you enjoyed them too. Thank you so much.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at the university and a volunteer interviewer for online local magazines. She is one of the top graduates of her department in the Anglophone literature and civilization field. She is passionate about art and literature, and she recently became vegetarian. She is currently working on a series of personal essays under the theme of “family”, and on a short story about an aspiring painter. Her philosophy in life is to always try be the best version of yourself and to always keep on learning.