Chikọdili Emelumadu was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire and raised in Nigeria. Her work has previously been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Awards (2015), the Caine Prize for African Literature (2017) and a Nommo award (2020). In 2019, she won the inaugural Curtis Brown First Novel Prize for her novel “Dazzling”. She tweets as @chemelumadu
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between East Sussex and the South of Algeria via WhatsApp and email.
Hello, Chikọdili. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. What does being on this shortlist mean to you? Was your reaction to being shortlisted different from the previous time or the same?
Chikọdili: I think I am more accepting of my nomination now. Happy, but accepting. I love that my weird stories seem to resonate with establishments such as the AKO Caine Prize as well as individual readers.
Saliha: “What To Do When Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata” is written in a form I have never seen before. At some point I thought maybe I should take notes. It is effective, taking a usually very academic and rigid form and transforming it into a humorous and sarcastic story. It weaves, in a fascinating way, a folktale into a modern setting, addressing modern concerns, with modern references such as Splash and Sharknado. What inspired you to write the story in this form? Did you always have a nagging desire or prior plan to tell a story in this unusual structure?
Chikọdili: Deep down I’m a frustrated academic, and my default is to be irreverent. These two things, combined with my love of the supernatural and spiritual, gave rise to “What To Do”. It’s a story mocking the way in which our society is somewhat intolerant of individualism and what it perceives as “otherness”. I don’t like it when writers tell stories in which there is no impact from the world around us, or stories in which the influences are only those with “gravitas”: politics, religion, feminism. Everything matters, it just depends on how you tell it.
Saliha: Oral stories have always been part of African literature; I remember very well all the stories older people used to tell me when I was a child. You have talked in a past interview for Africa in Dialogue about your fascination with urban legends and myths, and your enjoyment of telling stories that integrate them. Ishmael Beah (a Sierra Leonean author) stated in a recent article, “A Time for Farewell, and a Return”, that African thought, knowledge, intellectualism and wisdom are partly belittled by other parts of the world, especially by countries in the West, because we as Africans have neglected our thinking, knowledge, intellect, and wisdom for so long, and that the solution would be to the integration of our oral tradition stories into formal education, with the help of African writers and thinkers. What do you think of this statement? And do you think this is one solution to reaffirming our identity and knowledge?
Chikọdili: Whaaaat? I say the same thing too. Maybe I should link up with Ishamael Beah. Have you got contacts? I haven’t read said article, but I’ll hunt it down. I’m certainly with Beah as I think this is a good place to start. The problem, however, is that a dearth in oral storytellers means a lot of our thinking, our nuances, vignettes, and pictures of life through the ages have been lost. There is a huge gap in our knowledge, and that is partly the reason why I write the way I do. I abhor a vacuum in knowledge and so, it is my job, after painstaking research, to pass on what I have learned, in the way that I do it. I’d like to think my stories are like a pill—sometimes hard to swallow, but good for you, the lessons being released slowly over time.
Saliha: I have read, in the past, some writers’ interviews where they would mention the kind of reaction they want the audiences to have upon reading their stories. It can be shock, subversion of expectations, or hope. Do you consciously have in mind the reaction of the readers when writing, or do you just put words out there, as they come, without letting outside circumstances dictate your story’s direction?
Chikọdili: No, I don’t deal with readers’ expectations to the best of my knowledge. I just say what it is that needs saying and meet readers at panels! I’ve had people quarrel with me because of endings, or how the stories went. I say, “Oil up and fight me.” Make it interesting, ha ha. (Seriously don’t. I will bite you.)
“As writers we have to stay true to ourselves, and we have to be able to stay true to our characters. Part of that is people realizing that we are just like actors, but doing all our storytelling in words. We inhabit different bodies and different houses to understand these characters better.”
Saliha: Your story also addresses issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights. This passage—“citizenship by registration is only valid in male-female, human/Wata relationships, where the human partner is male. Please contact your local Interspecies Department (ID) for pointers and clarification”—stuck with me, especially with all the social injustices, violence, and crimes against minorities and women happening right now, be it in the United States, Nigeria or India. Why do you think the world seems to have gone backwards on solving these issues? Do you think the governments are the primary source, though in some parts of the world they are voted into office?
Chikọdili: Oh, I wrote this because I was upset that children do not get Nigerian citizenship unless their father or grandfather is Nigerian. What nonsense is that? Here in East Sussex, people are generally more relaxed—perhaps it is to do with being on the coast and having the Sussex Downs on our doorstep, so the backwardness, if it exists, is not immediately apparent. Brighton is the home of liberalism, pro-LGBTQ+, pro-choice, etc. I will say though, that I was surprised to find people marching from Hove to protest the lockdown and being at home. Idiocy. Imagine protesting that, despite how many people have died from Covid-19 complications?
Saliha: In an essay written by Albert Camus in 1958 about the responsibility of the artist he states “Amid this blaring din, writers can no longer hope to stand on the sidelines to pursue the thoughts and reflections they cherish. Up until now, it has been more or less possible to remain detached from history. Anyone who disagreed with events could often remain silent, or speak of other things. Today, everything has changed: silence itself has taken on formidable meaning. The moment that remaining detached was considered a choice, and punished or praised as such, artists, whether they liked it or not, became involved. And in this, the word involved seems to me much more accurate than simply committed.” He wrote this in reference to the responsibility of writers and artists to speak up and create in—to what he refers to as interesting times—in the 1950s. Do you think that writers now have more responsibility to speak up on social and political concerns? How can writers survive in a time of internet and social media networks’ instant reactions when voicing their ideas, criticism and objections?
Chikọdili: I think Camus was right—for his time—and certainly, there is a responsibility for writers to keep up with what is happening in their time, because we are very much affected, not just by our memories and experiences but by the current climate, whatever is happening.
There is, however, this difficulty: It’s a two-headed beast: the one side is, a lot of writers feel an intense pressure to remain relevant and to speak about things that are happening in the news or happening around the world, even where they might not necessarily have any feelings or opinions about it, by which I mean, you are learning, you are observing. A lot of things you might not have the range to speak on, or the experience to speak about, and it’s okay in that instance to just be quiet, to listen and to learn, and your opinions will come with time, it’s not a rush.
I think what social media heightens is the notion that if you don’t respond to something, if you are not immediately reactionary, then you are not one of the writers that should be counted. People are quiet for different reasons, and I think it’s best to remain silent if you have nothing to say, and to learn rather than to rush in to say something which could be counted against you later.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t react to things at all, and it doesn’t mean that people’s opinions, people’s feelings about things don’t change, that’s a totally different beast, but if you don’t have anything of value to contribute, it’s better off being on the sidelines, or maybe even highlighting those voices you think you agree with, even if those voices are opposites to what you think. You might not have an opinion, but there are people saying things that have touched you, and it’s okay to sit on the sidelines and to highlight them, and in time, form your own opinion, rather than be reactionary.
The second head of this beast that I talked about, is saying something and then that thing being taken as the entirety of who you are. Social media is very much about highlighting the moment and highlighting what is happening at the time, and you see things happening, whereby someone says something and they’ve gone and dug up their tweets from several years ago. Who has time for these things? Who is doing all this? It’s so much work. People change, and people’s opinions change, and people who are normally bigoted sometimes will just stop being bigoted. When the growth has been genuine, when we can see this person no longer holds those opinions, why are we still punishing them by bringing up things they said ages ago? Sometimes ages ago in a writer’s life was only six months ago.
Even as a writer, you can go to your work, and something that you wrote months ago and thought was fantastic then, now has gaping holes; you see all the problems, and that is growth, so growth happens, whether we are on or off social media, and we have to be able to give people that leeway. Otherwise, you are going to have writers who are not the sum of their experiences. They are not writing fully, because everybody is afraid of being judged.
As writers we have to stay true to ourselves, and we have to be able to stay true to our characters. Part of that is people realizing that we are just like actors, but doing all our storytelling in words. We inhabit different bodies and different houses to understand these characters better. People shouldn’t be punished for that. I am talking about a well-rounded study of human characters. What social media does is that it tends to heighten things to the point where a lot of writers might feel paralyzed. We really shouldn’t be thinking about who is going to read the work while writing the work, or before writing the work. The work is the work. I am an old soul. As it is, part of the thing that sells you as a writer is how many numbers you have engaging with you on social media, and I kind of wish it wasn’t like that.
Saliha: Thank you, Chikọdili, for taking time to answer these questions. I am looking forward to reading more of your stories, and I wish you luck in the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
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.