On Ephemeral Identities and Grounded Stories: A Dialogue with Joshua Chizoma
Joshua is a Nigerian writer. His works have been published or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Anathema Magazine, Agbowó, Prachya Review, and elsewhere. His story, ‘The House Called Joy’, won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the flash fiction category. He is an alumnus of the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
BY CHISOM OKWARA
This conversation took place on a fine Sunday night, between Kigali and Nsukka, through voice chats.
Chisom: Congratulations on making the shortlist for the 2021 Afritondo prize. How did you feel when you found out you’d made the shortlist? You were long-listed last year for your story, Of Dead Things That Come Alive, how does it feel to have stepped closer to clinching the prize this year?
Joshua: When I saw the announcement, I was thrilled – I’m still thrilled. I felt this huge burst of adrenaline and I remember I was trying to sleep, and I couldn’t anymore. I was so hyped and pumped up.
It’s validating, as much as I hate to say it, because I don’t believe validation for a writer should come from anything apart from the inherent satisfaction you get from the work, from finishing the work. The worth of getting to the end of the work, reading the work, and having people read the work should be an ending itself. It should be satisfaction enough; it should be all the validation that a writer needs, because seeking validation externally from any other source can be a slippery slope, it just leads to a lot of issues. But then, it is validating anyway, being on the shortlist, especially considering the calibre of people on the shortlist. It sort of makes me realize that last year was not a fluke. Getting on the shortlist this year tells me that there is something there; it tells me that perhaps if I could put in a lot more work, a lot more effort, I could aspire to bigger things and bigger prizes. So, I think the biggest thing it did for me was to validate all of the effort I put into working on my stories and my craft.
Chisom: I agree with you that the craft of writing and being read should be validating enough, and yes, indeed, there are really amazing people on this shortlist with you.
Your shortlisted story, Collector of Memories, is set in Aba, where we both grew up. I smiled when I saw Faulks road as one of the settings in the story. My childhood is inextricable from that part of town. What inspired Collector of Memories?
Joshua: First of all, I’ll start with the importance of Aba to me and my stories, then I’ll talk about what inspired the story. So, generally, when I started writing my earliest stories, I wasn’t particular about setting. I think I used a couple of places like Lagos and all of that. Increasingly, I am finding out that the setting of my story actually grounds the story. Writing is a bit like reaching out into the void, calling things out of the void. Having some concrete thing actually helps – it does help me. When I write stories and set them in Aba, it is familiar. The setting is familiar, and I can then create characters that are familiar to me. I also think it ties into nostalgia and memories, how we want to go back to the places we were, how stories are intricately tied to location. For Collector of Memories, it was important for me to situate it in Aba because that is where the story most likely would work for me. I guess it what writers like Otosirieze Obi-Young and Akwaeke Emezi do when they write about Aba, and of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she writes about Abba and Nsukka, and Arinze Ifeakandu when he writes about Kano. There is something whimsical about writing about a place where you grew up in or a place that holds a lot of memory for you. But particularly for me, it is the grounding it gives me that is most important.
The inspiration for the story: It almost feels as though it is real. I am half-expecting that someone will walk up to me someday and say, “Oh, this is my story, this happened to me” because growing up in Aba, it was commonplace to hear of someone giving birth and dumping the baby by the side of the road or a junction or the Motherless Babies’ Home. You still hear of girls giving birth and leaving the babies by the dump. I think the idea is that people go to dispose of refuse in the morning, and they will see the baby and the news will spread.
I was trying to interrogate, to imagine any of these kids growing up – what would their experiences be? And I didn’t want to make it an orphanage story. I wanted the child to grow up in a family setting and be aware of their history. I don’t think there was a particular event, and I can’t exactly pin a particular story that forms the basis of the story. I think it takes after snatches of conversations I heard from my parents and others around me and the gaps I filled in with my imagination.
Chisom: Writing is like calling things out from a void. That is so apt. I also resonated with the premise of what you wrote, having grown up in Aba too. It was so rampant, tales of people giving birth and leaving their babies by junkyards. I think it’s great that with stories, we can reimagine some of the things we hear so often they almost start to lose their substance.
A number of things twirled in my mind as I read Collector of Memories: What happens when our idea of who we are is completely toppled? What do the circumstances of our birth say about who we are? Did you set out to provoke a more nuanced conception of “identity,” chip away the fine lines around the term? What sort of conversations would you love for the story to inspire, if any?
Joshua: Basically, when I was writing the story, what I was trying to show—or what the story tries to show—is how identity is ephemeral; how it is a flimsy thing, a collection of memories, and memories in this case are the memories of others until the point where you begin to create memories for yourself. So, what people tell you, what you’ve heard about yourself, they form the identity you have, and considering the fickleness of human memory, what people tell you might not necessarily be accurate. People can tell untruths—for whatever reason—and can be malicious in telling the truth, or shift the truth whatever way they want to. So, the collection of memories that we have might not necessarily be accurate. At some point, one might have to decide what forms their identity.
“When I was writing the story, what I was trying to show—or what the story tries to show—is how identity is ephemeral; how it is a flimsy thing, a collection of memories, and memories in this case are the memories of others until the point where you begin to create memories for yourself.”
Somewhere in the story, I mention that the girl was looking into her bag of memories and arranging and taking out the things she wants to take out and those she wants to keep. At the end of the day, the idea of herself she decides to go with is a contrived one, a fictitious one, not actually the “real” one. And the point I was trying to make is that it is valid. At the point where you have an array of options, you can decide to make memories for yourself…create identities for yourself. History is what we make of it, what we tell of it… You, as an individual, are the person in the best position to decide what forms your identity, even if it is a fictionalized one, it doesn’t matter.
The conversations I want would revolve around the subject of identity. I want anyone who reads the story to ask themselves what they actually know of themselves – what they have come upon by, maybe, chance or what they have come upon by diligent search, and imagine a situation where all they’ve been told is a lie – or some of it is a lie: What happens in that situation? Who are you at your core? What are the indispensables? What are the particulars, and what are the variables? If you are told you are not from the state you are supposed to be from or who you thought is your mum is not you mum… Are you willing to give those up and take on new identities or are you willing to stick to a contrived version of yourself? It’s a journey in introspection.
Chisom: I find this perspective on identity very interesting and insightful. The main character in Collector of Memories is female. We follow her coming-of-age over the years as the plot thickens. What was it like embodying her character throughout the piece?
Joshua: It was hard, really. It was hard. Creating characters is usually hard, anyway, for me, and that is because I am almost always obsessed with my characters. I want to get to know them intimately. I want to know what they feel, how they feel… TJ Benson once said to me, “You should get to know your characters so intimately that you will be able to predict what will have for dinner, where they would most likely get a graduate degree…” Sometimes, I even create a sheet where I write stuff about each character. Of course, eventually all of those do not make their way into the story, but it gives me an idea of who I am writing about, and as the story progresses, and as I edit, I get so familiar with the characters that I can almost imagine some of them coming to life someday. I can imagine how they look in my head; how they walk, how they speak.
It was particularly hard doing this for a female; I am not female and some of the experiences a woman would have, even though I may have heard or been told about them, there is usually something lacking when you haven’t experienced such things yourself. So, I had to do a lot of research. I had to talk to a lot of people. While it was hard embodying a female lead, I felt at the same time that she was the channel that could best convey the story. I toyed with writing it from her adopted mum’s perspective but then, it just didn’t work.
Chisom: The quote from TJ Benson is really powerful. I love how you talk about your intentionality in creating your characters. At this point, I’m curious to know a bit about the characterization of aunties in Collector of Memories. You gave them pride of place in the plot. Was that intentional, did it come with the muse? I am thinking through it as a Nigerian, an Igbo girl who grew up in Aba raised by not just my parents, but my aunties, one, especially, who was like a second mum. The prominence of the role of aunties in the life of the main character made me feel seen.
Joshua: Yes, it was intentional. I was deliberate about creating a community of women raising a young girl, bound by loyalty. I wanted to make them unconventional in the sense that they had distinct personalities. And they are unmarried, so there was no male presence lurking or brooding over them. I think it’s a nod to the reality that in a lot of cases, we have single mums, we have aunties all contributing to raise young girls and teach them all they need to know. I remember when I wrote the scene where the main character’s aunties all showed her all their different flavours of love. It was a celebration of the different female figures we have in our lives, and how they help with rearing us, raising us, impacting our lives. I find that I am increasingly drawn to unconventional relationships, filial relationships especially. I am working on a story about a father and his son which I think isn’t often explored.
The spotlighting of aunties in Collector of Memories, although not often seen in narratives, I find to be an integral part of the Nigerian experience. We often have our aunties helping to raise us. Although I do think that in reality, they scold and they beat us, even if in the story, the aunties do not. (Laughs).
Chisom: I love the representation in this, and it speaks to lived experiences that need to be centered more. There’s really such a breadth and depth to filial relationships and they’re often overlooked or swept through in testament to their day-to-dayness.
On the “curse” factor which surfaces in the story: I grew up conscious of curses, and genuinely afraid of them. I never quite wrapped my head around the “generational” ones but the more handy “you-will-suffer-for-this” or “somebody-will-do-you-back, you’ll-see” ones gave me the scare. It didn’t help that Nollywood fed it to us like cheeseballs. What do you think about curses in this day and age of hard facts and reason and wokeness.
Joshua: I was deliberate about not giving an answer to that in the story (laughs) and it shows my state of mind and what I think about curses. I don’t know if curses work. Somedays, I think they do, and that karma comes back to haunt people as they say—which keeps everyone in line, makes sure everyone gets their due—but I don’t know if that necessarily works. And this is mostly because I am religious and of course, curses and blessings form a huge part of the Christian theology. Right now, in this age of hard facts, I think it will be foolhardy for anyone to argue that the spiritual or the mythical exists anyway. I think they do, in whichever form one thinks they exist, whether alternate realms or universes, energy, or chakra… I think curses exist but I’m not sure how they work. So, it’s an open-ended question I left in the story. I didn’t get to the resolution of it. And you’d be surprised that I don’t know how the story ends, because it ends abruptly. We don’t get to know what lies on the other side of the phone call that the character received at the end. The answer would resolve the question of whether curses work in one way or the other and I don’t think I am in a position to answer that right now.
Chisom: You really pulled a Kainene on us, didn’t you? What’s interesting is that I automatically assigned an ending to the story. My mind conjured an ending and held it as valid. Like you, I am not sure how curses work but I dread them.
In an interview for Book O’clock Review last year, you mention that sometimes, you write about what you expect to see. Is this sometimes, therapeutic?
Joshua: Oh yes – and this is why I think that writing, creating things is such a magical endeavour. You can create, you can rectify the past, you can create the future, you can sort of bring things into existence. So, sometimes, I stop to imagine; what would a world without injustice, a world where people get their dues, a world where there isn’t a primacy on otherness, a world without hate, how will that kind of world be? And yeah, I do agree that it could be therapeutic, getting to find some resolution to a world that is steeped in chaos. So sometimes, I reach into the void to create a future I want. Sometimes I think of a different ending to a story or movie, and it helps me find closure in certain situations, which is why I think art in itself is such a beautiful thing.
Chisom: Indeed, writing helps us reimagine how things could be, and it really is one of the beauties of creative work. There’s been increasing recognition of your writing: Currently, you’re shortlisted for two prizes, the Awele Creative Trust Award and the Afritondo Short Story Prize. How do you receive these at this point in your journey? You’ve often mentioned that looking ahead to the future, you intend to pursue a full-time corporate career and write for the love of it but not as a full-on second career. Do you see the growing spotlight inspiring a revisit of these intentions?
Joshua: You know I mentioned earlier that being on the shortlist gave me some sort of validation; it made me think, “You could actually do this, and you could be good at doing this.” So, I have always thought that I might eventually go into full-time corporate law practice, and this is basically because of the security that comes from law practice…Getting a monthly paycheck. Security and stability are very important to me. I’m the kind of person who likes to be in charge of my own space so routines and schedules work for me. In situations where those are absent, I feel the beginnings of anxiety. I see myself flailing, not necessarily drowning but flailing still.
This is the major reason I don’t see myself going into writing full-time. Writing is dotted with uncertainties, whether one gets shortlisted for a prize, whether one makes money, whether the book deal comes through, whether the recognition comes through. In a vast majority of cases, one cannot be in control of all the variables. So, it is possible that someone writing and putting a lot of effort does not get the recognition they desire or merit, so I cannot say that if I put a lot of work into my writing, eventually I will get the recognition that comes with it.
Sometimes, these variables are out of one’s control: submitting for a prize and it comes down to what the judges want and whether they understand what you are trying to say in your work; also, how luck plays a huge role in whether one gets recognition or adequate financial compensation for their work.
So, full time writers have a lot of my respect because it is like launching out into the dark and being certain that you would strike gold. It takes a certain level of courage and I don’t know if I have that. Now, whether to write full time or not, I don’t know. In any case, it has given a certain level of importance to my writing. Instead of being a pastime or leisure activity, I am taking writing a lot more seriously, finding room to do my writing even while I am working, and I am actively looking to see if there’s a way to do both Law and Creative Writing for my graduate program. I haven’t found such a program yet. In all, things have not changed much. I haven’t moved from wanting to practice law but perhaps I have moved in terms of the level of attention and primacy I give to writing.
Chisom: I resonate completely. There’s a lot of subjectivity in the institution of writing. In terms of merging both, I see certain people who seem to properly blend alternate careers and their writing, and sometimes, other forms of creative expression as well. I am really inspired by that.
This one’s random. Your love for plantains, tell me, what is it about it? Both fried plantains and plantain chips make cameo appearances in Collector of Memories…but who’s looking? Not me (laughs).
Joshua: Yeah, I love plantains. My earlier bios used to be “Joshua Chizoma loves the Lord, fried plantains and his sisters exactly in that order” and I remember one of my sisters being really furious about that.
I guess it is just how much I love plantains: ripe plantains, fried plantains, plantain chips. I almost always buy plantain chips when I am travelling. Before you pointed it out, I wasn’t even conscious of that. I guess this is how the things we love make their way into our stories. It makes me wonder how much of ourselves we give away without even meaning to; whether it is possible that if someone reads your body of work, they can begin to get an insight into who you are and get to know you. If you can get to the point where instead of answering the “can I get to know you” question, you just refer people to your written works and hope that they can get a glimpse of who you are from your works.
Chisom: Very interesting reflections. I wonder too, just how much of one seeps through in their writing. To wrap up, what do you look forward to, with regard to your writing in the rest in 2021?
Joshua: I look forward to more opportunities, more room to grow and flourish, and other things my writing could become. I find that sometimes, my writing surprises me. I get ideas for stories that I find impressive (laughs). The prose too is sometimes shocking; I go over my work, and I am impressed. I look forward to that – being pleasantly surprised this year, and hopefully, to more literary success.
Chisom: It’s always a delight to read you, Joshua. I wish you the very best as more of the journey unfolds. Thanks for making out time for this conversation with me, and good luck on the Afritondo prize.
Joshua: Thank you. You are such an amazing person to talk to.
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
Chisom Okwara is a Nigerian writer and interviewer. She writes essays and travelogues (with publications in the Question Marker, Thrive Global and Popula) and hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. She participated in British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference for young student journalists in 2019. Currently, she is a full-time Project Coordinator at SoCha LLC.