AKO Caine Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Jowhor Ile
Jowhor Ile was born and raised in Nigeria. He is known for his first novel, And After Many Days. In 2016, the novel was awarded the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Ile’s short fiction has appeared in The Sewanee Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and Litro Magazine. He earned his MFA at Boston University and is currently a Visiting professor at West Virginia University. Ile splits his time between Nigeria and the U.S.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between the USA and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Hello, Jowhor. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Jowhor: Thank you. It is great to be on the shortlist. I’m very pleased.
Saliha: Everyday, people have to deal with the death of loved ones in their lives, and each person has to navigate the void that a loss leaves in them in their own way. In “Fisherman’s Stew”, Nimi seems to be leading a normal life, and nothing seems to be amiss, but as I went through the story I discovered the passing away of her husband Benji. It made me understand the reason behind her friend’s silence when she told her about his visit during the night. And it installed a sense of malaise in me that dissipated when at last I read “All her day they could have; the night was hers alone to keep”. Nimi seems to be conscious of her loss, but chose a way to deal with its aftermath. Is her approach to grief temporary or will she slip further into the refusal of her loss?
Jowhor: “Fisherman’s Stew” is probably the most optimistic thing I’ve written. I don’t know what happens to Nimi outside of the page. Her decisions were hers and the story definitely wasn’t written as a recommendation or as a manual on how to handle grief. I think that life can be hard and people sometimes come across resources that enable them to survive and have a sense of well-being.
Saliha: It is indeed optimistic. And it is refreshing to see that there is a community that cares about her. The story is also about a never-ending love and passion, it is in a way a contrast to the many stories of loveless and forced marriages, oppression and brutality in the relationships between men and women in Africa. Do you think that it is also important to tell more of these optimistic love stories based in Africa?
Jowhor: I’m in no position to prescribe what other writers should do. In fact, I’m quite allergic to prescriptions in general when it has to do with writing. I don’t want to be blind to the richness and fullness of the life I witness and lend to my fiction, I don’t exclude light or dark, and I will never betray my own vision of the world.
“While working on this story, I was also haunted by the sensuousness of certain foods, by aromas that brought to mind images of the places I grew up in and love.”
Saliha: I suppose you are right, writing is at many times an organic process. At times characters just come into your mind and you want to write their stories. Your novel, “And After Many Days”, also deals with grief, pain and loss. Is there something to these themes that drives you as an author in particular to write about them? In an interview you said that distance helped you to write about a complicated period. Was it the same with “Fisherman’s Stew”? Or what influenced you to write it is different from the novel?
Jowhor: I don’t know what drives me. I’m haunted by the landscapes of my childhood, the places in which I grew up—Port Harcourt in the south-south region of Nigeria and Obagi, my ancestral village, an hour’s drive away. A longing for home sharpens my memory of place and the people I’ve known.
Saliha: I think I am like that; my childhood memories seem so vivid while I am away from where I was born and grew up, here in Algeria. They are so strong that even the closer-to-the-present memories pale in comparison to my childhood memories.
The story is particularly related to food; I loved how it created a special local atmosphere and invited me alongside the characters into the actions of the story, into the market and into Nimi’s intimate space. It’s like a literary device of its own. Food was also a delightful memory trigger for Nimi, a desired triggering. And the process of her cooking might look like a simple everyday normal work if one didn’t know the intricate feelings and thoughts behind it. Can you tell me more about the process you undertook to weave in food into the story?
Jowhor: I was really taken by the idea of food preparation as alchemy. The notion that a transformation occurs in the stirring and mixing and that by paying a certain kind of attention to the cooking you could arrive at a dish, a new creation, so delicious and powerful it would do for the body whatsoever the body needed and more. It’s probably an ancient idea I can’t possibly defend. While working on this story, I was also haunted by the sensuousness of certain foods, by aromas that brought to mind images of the places I grew up in and love. The aroma and kick of catfish pepper soup, well-made. Corn and ube always makes me think of wood smoke coiling out of an outdoor kitchen with the scent of abundance all around. I wanted to share this feeling of comfort, so I put it everywhere in the story.
Saliha: This is a brilliant answer; I can completely see your passion for food and what it means to you in it. Writing a novel always looks like much more demanding work, unlike short stories. However, novels allow for much more space to be more detailed and maybe include more characters. Seeing as you have experience both in writing novels and short stories, what were the differences you noticed? And how did you approach the writing of each one?
Speaking of novels and short stories, are you working on anything now?
Jowhor: I find both the short story and the novel equally difficult. I don’t share in the assumption that the short story is an easier form to achieve, at least it’s not so in my case. But I understand how brevity can suggest ease. I think writing a novel requires stamina and maybe a wider scope in general, but I have short stories I started five years ago and they wait daily for something to happen to them. I’m currently writing in both forms and l hope they turn out well.
Saliha: That’s the word; “stamina” is much more required for writing novels. Nice to hear that you have new works and I am sure they will be great too.
Thank you, Jowhor, and congratulations again for being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. I wish you good luck.
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.