The Art of Intentionality and Thriving in Difficulty: A Dialogue with Michelle Chikaonda

THE ART OF INTENTIONALITY AND THRIVING IN DIFFICULTY

A DIALOGUE WITH MICHELLE CHIKAONDA

Michelle Alipao Chikaonda is a nonfiction writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the 2014 Literary Award for Narrative Nonfiction of the Tucson Festival of Books, the 2015 Stephen J. Meringoff Award for Nonfiction of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, and the 2015 Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. In 2015 she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and in 2020 she was longlisted for the Toyin Falola Prize; she will be published along with 39 other emerging African writers in the Prize’s forthcoming anthology in 2021.

She is a workshop instructor at Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit teaching writing and critical thinking to children and teens, and has also taught with Blue Stoop, a hub for the Philadelphia literary community. She was a 2019 resident at The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency, and is a Voices of Our Nations [VONA] Workshop fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and was a presenter at the 2019 and 2020 Association of Writing and Writing Programs [AWP] conferences; she will be a presenter at the forthcoming AWP conference in March 2021. She is currently published in The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, Catapult, Africa is A Country, and Al Jazeera English, among others.

Chisom Okwara

BY CHISOM OKWARA

This conversation took place over the course of two months, during which the world tried opening up post- early stage lockdowns: airports resumed business not as usual, people looked out – then in, and out again – to see what’s left of their hopes and livelihood. In this time, the Jerusalema Challenge made its rounds, young Africans across Nigeria, Congo, South Africa, Namibia protested for their lives, their rights. America staggered.

Chisom: Hello Michelle, it is an absolute pleasure to have this dialogue with you. I’d love to break the ice with what has been a personal musing since a Malawian friend of mine informed me sometime in 2017 that the first five letters of my name – “Chiso” – mean “face” in Chichewa. I found that intriguing. I am very taken by Chichewa words; They remind me of my ethnicity/mother tongue – Igbo, especially due to the recurrence of the syllable “chi”. Can I ask what “Chikaonda” means? The first two syllables – Chika – mean “God is bigger” in Igbo and a good number of Igbos go by the name, Chika.

Michelle: So my last name is actually the first part of a longer expression. “Chikaonda” means “When it gets thinner,” which on its own doesn’t make sense; the full phrase is “chikaonda chikoma ndi nchere” which means “when it gets thinner it tastes good with salt.” The It being referenced is an animal consumed for its meat; in the region where my father’s family originates from, that would typically be either a goat or a cow, but for the purposes of this expression the referenced It is presumed to be a goat. I believe that this is simply due to their differences in size: a cow is less likely to be slaughtered for a family’s consumption than a goat—they’re so big that a whole cow can’t reasonably be used for food except for large events like weddings and funerals, and this expression would have come into existence well before the twin wonders of electricity and refrigeration—so if we know that language expressions tend to shape themselves around somewhat regular occurrences, then a comestible being referenced as  “thin” will inevitably be a smaller animal, like a goat. (Chickens don’t appear to count; no official linguistic or cultural reasons occur to me except that chickens generally get no respect, and that paradoxically the meat from a lean chicken that has led a good and active life in the village actually tastes the best, even without salt!) Cattle are thus chiefly for wealth, not personal consumption; goats are also wealth, of course, but a goat can also more reasonably be consumed by just a few people than a cow (relatively speaking; “a few” might still be many people over several days), so there would naturally be a greater depth of colloquial understanding of the taste differences between thinner and meatier goats. I’m probably thinking way too hard about this. (laughs) 

In my life in the U.S., I often analogize the full version of my last name to the English expression “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade;” a situation that seems bad on the surface can be made better with a shift in perspective, just as even an animal with little meat on it can still taste good with some salt added. I think I also like analogizing the two expressions because when I was growing up my father’s parents used to keep lemon trees at their village, just a short walk behind the khonde at the back of their house, and every time we visited them my grandmother would send me home with several bags of lemons. I loved lemonsstill doand with all those lemons I would then make everything from lemonade to lemon meringue pie to lemon bars, and of course I preferred tea with lemon rather than milk. Lemons actually have positive associations for me, then! So I suppose, in my mind, the two entities of my last name and the specific location that name comes from have found themselves linked in this way, across my various languages and cultures. 

Chisom: Such depth, such proverbial narrative in a name! I find it powerful that certain names carry the weight of history, culture,  identity,  faith, and still retain their jejune everydayness. Your analogy between “when it gets thinner, it tastes good with salt” and “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” has helped guide my understanding of “Chikaonda”, and now I am wondering how else I would have interpreted it…

It really just struck me that almost everyone I know sees lemons in good light – sour slaps and all. If the life-lemons-lemonade analogy backdropped our reality, could we assume it implies that lovers of lemon (as it is) are wired to accept difficulty? And why does “make lemonade” suddenly strike me as a bridge to a capitalist anthem? All that manufacturing. All that sugar. 

Thinking of the underlying meaning shared by these two expressions which you’ve pointed out and which I often summarize a bit too simplistically as “changing the way we look at things makes all the difference”, I recall your early paragraphs in “The Words that will bring us through the chaos”; You weave through your navigation of joy, activity, energy – a subtle yet bold insistence on ‘living’ – through the pain of your father’s cancer. This insistence on ‘living well’ amidst painseen even more clearly from the juxtaposition of your experience with that of a character who seemed to have outrightly made a bed out of the thorns around hermakes me curious to know what your take on intentionality is – in life, in your writing. 

Michelle: Until you specifically wrote this phrase, “the lovers of lemon are wired to accept difficulty,” I never considered how the kind of person one is might be reflected in one’s tastes. But now I look at the things I love, especially the things my palate craves, and I am now laughing at myself. It seems I not only make difficult things work, I seem to now crave them! I drink my regular coffee black, no sugar or cream; the same with espresso, especially when it is well-made. My favorite beer varietal is the India Pale Ale (IPA), which is notably bitter because of the high level of hops involved in its brewing; and all the hot sauces currently in my possession are from Malawi. None of the ones I can find here in Philadelphia are hot enough for me, the kind of hot that makes your eyes and nose water if one uses anything larger than a delicate dab of it per bite. My mother jokes that it’s my Ngoni side—my father’s side—that deliberately seeks out all that difficulty to consume; as I understand it us Ngonis are believed to thrive in difficulty and even to actively look for it, which can sometimes cause trouble, but is also suggestive of an ability to withstand struggle in ways that others may not be able to. This is all lore, of course, but if it works for me and how I choose to see myself in the world I am perfectly okay with taking that definition on!

In reflecting on multiple aspects of my life right now—not just in the grander scheme of who I am and what has led me to this point over time, but in the more immediate context of the pandemic and its associated lockdown, now going on six months in my part of the US—it’s clear to me that I’ve made intentionality into almost a religion. For example: last year I realized I needed extended time alone to really develop my writing, and had planned to spend the early part of this year applying for summer and fall residencies to get two to six weeks away from everything to write. Once the reality of the pandemic set in across the country, back in March, those residencies all suspended their applications, and so I resolved instead to do that same writing at home, jokingly calling this the Quarantine Residency for myself as a way of framing my objective. Six months later, I have never published so much in a half-year span than I have in the past half-year or, honestly, even in a year; and I have nearly twice as many unpublished/unfinished works right now still on my computer. 

“In those instances of particularly deep grief waves, I deliberately chose the sadness or at least leaned into it, knowing—or maybe just blindly trusting—that sitting inside of those feelings would have a fundamentally redemptive effect by the time I had allowed myself to experience it completely and then rise up from it.

I don’t think this is just about a fanaticism about reaching my goals, though I do admit to having this personality bent. I actually think it comes from a larger understanding, developed over time and experience, that I can’t control what happens outside of me, and I can’t control much of what happens to me, and so the concomitant belief grew that though I can’t control those things, I can control the lens that I choose to see those things through, and what I then choose to do about it. I can’t control the pandemic, and I can’t control the fact that I have to spend most of my days indoors in order to keep healthy and safe. But I can choose to make something of my time indoors, and to reinterpret all this extended time alone as possibly being a blessing, rather than an oppressive curse. I recognize the limitations of this—I’m also an introvert by nature, so these enforced limits on social interactions have actually been really good for mebut this works for me, and so I’ll continue to follow this philosophy until it life changes to the point that it doesn’t fit me anymore.

To answer your very first question, about the capitalist undercurrent to this philosophy: absolutely. To the point that I find myself regularly questioning if this impulseto write and create and build in the open spaces that the lockdown has leftis really about me or is about this larger cultural pressure to ensure every moment in one’s life has a value that can be extracted from it, is somehow justifiable, if that makes sense.  I get enough out of this impulse that I am choosing to believe that it is about me, but I also know that as a general rule I’ve always been someone who has difficulty sitting still and not seeing so-called “empty” space in my day as a waste, so it is also fully possible that even if it is about me it may not always be the most positive thing. 

Chisom: “…until life changes to the point that it doesn’t fit me anymore”—That streak of flexibility amidst broad strokes of  intentionality counts for something. And to your consideration of subliminals around a pre-occupied/ “output-heavy” life or life phase, I think that “doing”surplus gains, not-all-positive undertow and all – can come off as discipline and can extend to form a precipice for “outdoing”which almost all would agree, counts a great deal.

Going forward, from reading “Snakes in the night”, “Song for My Father” and “Colossus in the Veld”, I glean an eclectic mix of what I’ve come to summarize as (forgive me as it would come off as simplistic) a laid-back childhood in Canada with springs of your introversion, a drama-ridden teenagehold in Malawi with your reticence at a solid high, a heart-and-mind opening phase in the United Kingdom making way for a go-all-out college experience in the United States – bedrocks of what seems to be morphing into a “choose it-live it” adulthood and naturally, all within and around your stake in life’s continuum of highs and lows. Is it just me or does this sound like the recipe to a life of writing, of non-fiction writing? 

How do we summarize a life? Should we even? I watched Boyhood on my 20th birthday and was taken by its spontaneous, perhaps too sparse, but remarkably real portrayal of coming-of-age. If you haven’t seen it, it followed, fictitiously, the actual growing-up of Ellar Coltronewho played the main character, Masonas his character transitioned from a chubby, perceptive six year old to a lanky, dreamy eighteen year old. While I watched, I replaced Mason with myself, and parsed a few defining moments in my own life just as the movie did. Unlike the movie, unlike film in general, writing, especially non-fiction writing, allows us to dwell on certain intricacies around moments and occurrences in our lives such that an event becomes an entire life of its own.

Does writing non-fiction make a difference in your understanding of life, does it cut through life’s mystery – in a good way? Ever unpacked why you started writing nonfiction and/or given thought to the stance that nonfiction is reductionist?

Michelle: Sometimes I worry that writing non-fiction frames my life too much, if that makes sense? I’ll be sitting with family or friends, or in a park reading a book, and will notice something for which I will immediately think, “That would be great to put in an essay.” All the time! It’s as though I can’t turn off the machine in my head that’s always narrativizing, always looking for the nugget-moment that could explain something larger about my world or indeed the world in general. 

For example: I’ve been in several weddings in the last few years, which has meant delivering several speeches for the various friends getting married. Each time the speeches were incredibly well-receivedmultiple people coming to find me afterwards and such, which is particularly reassuring after that otherwise nerve-wracking moment of public speakingand I believe this is because I’m intrinsically wired to understand the mechanics of illustrating an entire universe within a grain of sand, as the expression goes. Reflecting on each of those speeches, I anchored all of them in narratives that explained the moment that I understood the couple in front of me were destined for each other, and narratives that illustrated the personal growth and best characteristics of the person who was the reason I was at that wedding. Nonfiction is absolutely reductionist in this way, then, but the reason I am specifically using the example of wedding speeches is that I actually think that all of our life histories are, too. Whether it is a brain adaptation (you can’t hold literally every moment in your life in your head at once, so you have to pick and choose the ones that seem most valuable at the time) or an emotional/psychological oneyou pick the stories, good and bad, that you think best tell the story of youit’s just what’s real. 

My brother and I actually had the strange instance of realizing we had a memory that we both thought was oursa 13th birthday that had gone awry for many reasons; he thought it was his birthday, and I thought it was mineand after that moment I realized just how much these stories we highlight in our lives are about serving larger and very particular narrative purposes, rather than merely existing for their own sakes. Did it matter, then, whose birthday it was, if the essential beats of what transpired were the same, and led to the same understanding of our family dynamics for both of us? I actually don’t think so (though I continue to remember it as mine!).

As someone who has a lot of difficulty accepting the unknownand don’t even get me started on surpriseswriting nonfiction allows me to think I know the world in a meaningful way. So yes, cutting through life’s mystery. But to get to your question about how I became a nonfiction writer: I have been keeping journals since I was 8 years old. So I’ve been regularly documenting my life and the life around me for a very, very long time, albeit privately and informally. 10 years ago, in the spring of 2010 while I was living in New York City and the recession was still very much in full swing, I began writing poetry; I had this sudden urge to distill everything around me and in me down to its barest elements. I still can’t explain why. So I wrote poetry for a couple of years, some of it atrocious, some of it less so, and then one day I found that what I had to say warranted more than the space allotted to a poem, and honestly that is when my nonfiction life really began, in the spring of 2012. And while I do my best to limit the influence of publication and prizes and such on my understanding of my work, I will say that it was fairly immediatelyin terms of the arc of a writing lifefor which it became clear, in terms of the world’s reaction to my work, that nonfiction writing was my home. I had an essay first published the following spring, 2013, on a local Philadelphia website; later that year I workshopped a different piece that I’d written that same spring, receiving wonderfully positive feedback, and eventually won my first writing prize with that piece six months later. Then, as the expression goes, it was off to the races. So I think that the world also reinforced for me that this way of thinking and of seeing things was something necessary and something I was indeed uniquely skilled at doing. 

I think that everything from my childhood and adolescence was just the recipe for writing in my life, if that makes sense. I just recently learned of a brilliant Malawian painter, Franco Mbilizi, who is the brother of someone I went to secondary school with in Malawi; I look at his work and wonder about all the things that happened in his life such that he came to create art like that. For him, he is wired to see and express his world visually, and so everything that happened to him was the recipe for him becoming an artist. Maybe if I’d been visually wired, then, rather than verbally, I would be a visual artist instead of a writer; there is a nurture/nature question in here somewhere, like am I intrinsically someone who sees the world in words, or is it because my parents started reading to me long before I could talk, and so I learned that words are how worlds are made and unconsciously chose those for my tools? I don’t have the answer for that, and I try not to overthink it. My powers of self-expression lie at the intersection of pen with paper; that is what I will continue to create into until I unwittingly discover a heretofore unknown artistic skill.

Chisom: I started Maya Angelou’s memoir “The Heart of a Woman” this past week and found intriguing her path to writing, having set out as a performer, full of love for music and stage. Her story echoes your comment on writing – the journey to it – as personal and often unique, albeit ubiquitously laced within the forces of nature and nurture. 

You have written extensively on “home” and “loss” – both themes of complexity and depth, requiring you to “relive” reality, toespecially with lossdissect pain as you live or have lived it. It stands out to me that you write difficulty in a way that helps a reader bear with significant ease and even reimagine to an extent, heavy, gripping reality.  One phrase that comes to mind is “unconditional agency.” Is this ‘personality’ shining through your work, or is there perhaps more…? I put a pause to reading Joan Didion’s “A year of Magical Thinking” when it seemed I was about to internalize a great deal of pain that I wasn’t sure I knew how – or why – to bear. I started Chimamanda Adichie’s recent “Notes on Grief” and put a pause to it because I felt I needed to read it in phases – mostly because there was a lifetime of context to the pain. I’ve only written about loss once –  in 2016, when a friend passed away in my first year at university. I remember writing and wondering afterwards if my writing did any justice to the grief, to the life lived…and lost. Ever gone back to read your writings on loss from the near past? If you have, what went through your mind in doing so?

Michelle: It took me several attempts to start, and then get through, Chimamanda Adichie’s recent New Yorker essay too! I think because even as it is two years this autumn since my father passed away, it still feels too close; I finally read it one morning a couple of weeks ago, after waking up from a dream about my father so intense that it felt like he was still here. I cried most of the way through reading it. But she is of course the incredible writer that she is, and when I finished it I was so glad I had finally read it. 

I have indeed gone back to many of my own recent writings on the same topic—it is all I seem to be able to write about this year—including, on a few rare occasions, the eulogy I wrote for my father (which I self-published on Medium so that my American friends, and anyone else who hadn’t been able to attend the funeral, could read it). There are a couple of things going on there when I do this. Sometimes, when I am struggling to begin working on a new piece, I need to remind myself that I have successfully written about difficult things before, specifically grief. On those occasions I tend to go back and read several of my earlier essays in one sitting, in order to bolster my writing confidence by way of the cumulative weight of all that work. Sometimes, though, I am just in a rough spot with my grief and sadness that day, just really struggling, and one of those pieces will actually serve as a kind of comfort in that moment, almost as though it was someone else who wrote it and whose words of wisdom I need today. These last few weeks in the American political landscape have been particularly difficult, for example, and I found myself returning to my July essay, “The Words That Will Bring Us Through the Chaos.” The piece is both far away enough from me in time that it really does feel like it wasn’t me who wrote it, and yet at the same time of course the words are definitively mine, and so the piece also serves as a reminder of the presence of an internal roadmap I already have, to navigate through this pain and get myself out to the other side of it. 

I think I have always been someone who felt like I had to do something with my pain. I’m not sure if it’s personality or experience, nature or nurture if you will. I do know that I have always been a keen observer and processor of the world around me, even in my early primary school days, but I also do think that I had formative experiences with grief that changed my life, as in completely altered its direction; these made me into someone who perhaps wanted to be able to acknowledge loss without having it be backbreaking, whether in the moment or in retrospect. So I think I do bring this to bear in my work—it is not so much that I am trying to give readers, or even myself, hope that things will get better, so much as it is that I am rendering the loss into something both truthful to that experience yet still manageable in its re-experiencing.

Chisom: Thanks a lot, Michelle. I relate to what you say about going back to re-read old pieces, feeling both familiar and alien to one’s own words yet finding direction and meaning in the breadth and depth of lived experiences they narrate. Generally, I feel this sense of meaning and oftentimes reassurance when I read non-fiction – like I have been given multiple substitute compasses that could take me through different intersections and pathways but all reach the same end: a life lived.

I would love for us to wrap up our dialogue touching on light and pain through setting and reality. Having read your recent Medium article, “The Jerusalema Challenge: The Challenge of Joy” which weaved through your indulgence of lighthearted group dance videos from the Jerusalema challenge out of today’s America, the America stuck in the shadows of communal – global – alignment and joint restoration, I have found myself juxtaposing thoughts around your piece with the state of my home country, Nigeria, in the light of protests that have occurred over the last few weeks. While I am within the serenity and calm of Kigali, Rwanda, my heart has been in despair, stuck on Nigeria, swinging from hope to anguish and turmoil. I have found myself unable to cling to the light right in front of me.

Do you thinkin the same manner you held onto the light exuded by the Jerusalema Challengethat this sort of agency, this choosing of mental settings, possibly identifiable as a mental relocation, does more than invite or unsubscribe to joy and pain as the case may be? I do know that for a life of writing, this navigation of mental worlds is as good as given.  Is there ever a point then, in life more generally, when we have to choose between what’s in front of us and what isn’t, that we choose something other than light? What are your thoughts?

Michelle: When I wrote “The Jerusalema Challenge”, it was partly to give words to the anger and sadness I felt at the terrible situation the US is in with respect to COVID-19, and partly to codify for myself the commitment not to give undeserved attention to the US President, who appears fully committed, after four years, to doing absolutely nothing to grow into the responsibility and maturity the office of the Presidency demands. It was a very specific call for myself and others to reorient ourselves away from a specific kind of attention-giving, in other words, that feels gratifying in the moment but is just draining and toxic in the aftermath of giving it. He doesn’t deserve it; he hasn’t earned it; and I continue to be galled at an administration whose top officials trill the virtues of hard work and earning one’s way to success so loudly, and yet themselves so proudly flaunt their own mediocrity and lack of qualifications for the roles they inhabit. These are not people who deserve the honor, gift really, of our prolonged emotional engagement. So yes, for this administration and especially its leader, I endeavor hard to choose my settings, to borrow directly from the question above, wherever they are concerned. And even when I can’t outright choose the emotion of joy or fabricate my own experience of it, I can surely choose to focus on the instances of joy around me and take a kind of osmotic relief from those. Such as watching the Jerusalema Challenge videos.

I think there are absolutely times when one chooses settings that are not explicitly the light. These past eight months, for example, I found myself pushed into greater concert than I’ve ever previously allowed with my grief over my father’s passing. With all the death we have been surrounded by in these months, this was perhaps inevitable, but I was still surprised when that first really strong wave of Dad-related grief hit me, back in April. I could have tried to avoid it, sure; these are difficult feelings, and there were periods in this lockdown in which I found myself crying, in mourning really, for many days or even weeks in a row. But I knew that the longer I avoided facing off with those feelings the later they would inevitably show up, and being put off for so long they would show up in a different and perhaps more gnarled form, having been suppressed for so long. So in those instances of particularly deep grief waves, I deliberately chose the sadness or at least leaned into it, knowing—or maybe just blindly trusting—that sitting inside of those feelings would have a fundamentally redemptive effect by the time I had allowed myself to experience it completely and then rise up from it. 

I am not sure one can completely choose one’s mental state; one can, however, choose one’s mental and emotional orientation with respect to it. In the case of my grief waves during lockdown, for example, it wasn’t so much that I was choosing to be sad, so much as I was choosing not to run away from the sadness when it hit me. In the case of the Jerusalema Challenge and Joy, I am not choosing joyespecially in these final days leading to the election anxiety seems to be the only emotion I feel with any regularity so much as I am choosing to believe that searching for and finding joy wherever I can is both meaningful and necessary, and simultaneously choosing to look away from things that I know are direct detractors from that effort. I think we actually choose between what’s in front of us and what isn’t way more than we realize; it’s just that we so often make that choice passively that it doesn’t feel like we’re choosing. Yet we always can, and I think that even the effort to try is worthwhile. I think that the act of choosing how to be and how to orient oneself with respect to the events transpiring around oneself is a powerful form of self-liberation. Perhaps at its more pathological ends it can certainly manifest as mental relocation, and I don’t advocate that at all, because that’s a form of disengagement from the realities of one’s life that is essentially another form of avoiding dealing with one’s reality. But I absolutely believe we have far more power than we realize to shape our experiences of the realities we are in.

When my father first got his cancer diagnosis back in 2016, for example, he said that on a long drive one day that he took to collect his thoughts, a BBC World Service show came on where the featured guest also had cancer. The show’s guest said that he had made the deliberate choice to not focus on the possible worst outcome, specifically death, of this diagnosis. Death has always been the final outcome of this life, the show guest apparently said he had told himself. Yet you didn’t focus on that beforeso why focus on it now? Dad said that that completely changed his view of what was happening to him, and I really do believe that his hyper-insistence on focusing on continuing to live, rather than the possibility of dying, played a big role in how long he lived past a diagnosis that should have ended his life within months—nearly two years. I know that this focus meant that I remember the time we spent together in those last two years as genuinely good, happy even, and well-lived, even as he became more ill and less able to live that same life he was focusing so insistently on. Cancer, and the threat of death, wasn’t going to be allowed to cast a pall over whatever limited time we had left with each other. If death would come eventually—and of course it did—we would draw closer to each other and live fiercely well, until death finally succeeded in fighting its way between us and forcing us apart. But Dad refused to grant death that space prematurely, and so we all did not either.

Chisom: One of many things that have stood out in the course of our dialogue is intentionality through lifea mother phrase that breeds such salient perspectives as wielding life of agency: an agency that can stand up to blatant inefficiency, can sit with pain, can lean into light, can be fully present to change and uncertainty, can relive memory, can go back in time. I am temptedin my now recurrent synoptic fashionto retrofit a common proverb to express my collected thought. “Live and let life” – living our lives on terms that we choose, understanding that as life does run its course, swinging through times and seasons, presents and ex-es, memories and dreams,  we are able to – and this, too, is a choice – remain alive to it, not just in it.

It has been an absolute pleasure discussing with you over the past month and some, and I have been enriched by your responses. My final question would be – from your current standpoint, do you have an image of 2021 yet? Have you let your imaginations get that far? A number of people claim to have cancelled 2020 – the year that will be skipped in their personal history books haha. I can guess, thinking through your responses, that cancellation is and has not been your approach to the year. Curious to know if you’ve started looking to the near future yet, that is, if it’s something you do.

Michelle: No, cancellation has indeed not been my approach! I just see it as having been a different year to the year I had in mind 10 months ago. I will be honest that I have been almost superstitiously avoiding thinking about 2021; there is an extraordinary amount of unease and uncertainty in the U.S. right now, and I suppose I’m almost afraid of making plans too far in the future that are based on assumptions that may not end up playing out as I hope. Especially since my father died I find myself strangely unwilling to make plans too far out into the future, lest something else arrive to derail it. So I suppose my answer to that is that I am going to wait until the new year to decide what my next steps will be. I also really do believe that with the pandemic going the way that it is, one of the very real things that could end up happening next year is “staying put;” essentially, flying at this altitude, endeavoring to continue to publish regularly and get myself out there more, especially in the sphere of African writing. But otherwise so many of the pre-pandemic goal-setting I engaged in doesn’t fit a world now shaped by COVID-19, and so I think I need to think harder about what goals look like now and going forward. I don’t mean for that answer to be crypticI’m really not so mysterious! I’m just very wary of appearing more certain about things than I am, and want to be honest about allowing whatever the shape of my world turns out to be to shape my direction in that world.

Thank you again for this wonderful conversation. I look forward to continuing to be a part of this work, of thought and creation in the African literary space, well into the future.

Chisom: You’ve echoed my views on the year ahead. I look forward to more engagement—treading further, the grounds of the sublime, the written and unwritten. Thank you so much. It’s been a delight.

Chisom Okwara

Chisom Okwara is a graduate of Social Sciences from the African Leadership University, Mauritius. She runs BRIM Ltd, a digital comms and content marketing company in Kigali. She is obsessed with fonts, free t-shirts, and fine sentences. You can find her writings on AfricanWriter, Praxis Magazine, Thrive Global, The Question Marker, Medium, her blog – Odetoateen, and her LinkedIn page.

CHISOM OKWARA

INTERVIEWER FOR CREATIVE NON-FICTION

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