The Road to Renaissance: A Dialogue with Zenas Ubere
Zenas Ubere is a Nigerian writer and Pushcart Prize nominee with works in Lolwe, Barren Magazine, Agbowó, Gordon Square Review, The Voyage Journal, and elsewhere. He serves as an Editorial Intern at Lolwe and is a Prose Reader for Quarterly West and Fractured Lit. Twitter @ZenasUbere
BY EDITH MAGAK
This conversation took place between the warm, beautiful city in the sun, Nairobi, Kenya and a white-walled living room in temperate Owerri, Nigeria, via WhatsApp.
Edith: Thank you for joining me in this conversation, Zenas. One of the things I found intriguing about your story, ‘The Terror Ahead,’ in The Good Teacher Anthology, was that Uncle Dominic… Oh wait, before I go on, why did you call him Uncle instead of Teacher Dominic?
Zenas: I called him Uncle because in Calabar where I spent my childhood, students often called their teachers Uncle or Aunty. We don’t know the backstory, so we grew into the system and followed suit.
Edith: Ah, interesting. Good to know, thanks. Well, I was intrigued because Uncle Dominic taught you Math and the Sciences, but he was also your drama teacher. I know this is not uncommon, but where I come from, there’s always been this invisible battle line between the sciences and the arts. I remember all the way from primary to high school, our math and science teachers were always subtly against those students who took part in drama or music festivals. It is like if you were serious about your studies, then there was no room for jokes. Jokes referring to being a member of the drama club. And so, people who took part in drama had a poor reputation at school. Even right now, at least here in Kenya, we who are in the arts are taken less seriously than those in sciences.
But from your narration, I can tell Uncle Dominic reconciled these two. Is that harmony between sciences and arts replicated throughout the education system in your country?
Zenas: It is the same here. The best students were always advised to go into the sciences, as though the arts were reserved for the students with lower grades. Even A-students who eventually picked the arts were treated with slight scorn. People would say mocking things like, “So because you’re afraid of chemistry you ran to arts class.” It’s a really silly thing.
In secondary school, when it was time to make the choice between the sciences and the arts, it was difficult for me. I loved fine arts and literature, but I also loved Math and Physics. Back then, I looked forward to a career in automotive engineering, so I was guided away from the art subjects I considered taking. So, no, that harmony I only found with Uncle Dominic. While in secondary school, in fine arts classes, I learned about the Renaissance age, and I saw how well people straddled both the art and the science worlds. It always bothered me why our society created that unnecessary divide. Uncle Dominic remained, for me, a model of that renaissance man. He just knew so much and took us along, broadening our interests and opening our hunger to know more about the world. Politics, drama, history, math, geography, among others, were things he casually discussed with us. I aspired to have such a vast erudition.
Edith: I totally understand your sentiments. Integrating both the arts and sciences is the way to go. Because thinking back to my primary school science lessons, I can clearly remember the science songs my teacher taught us. The lessons were easier and more exciting when we sang or dramatized the information.
Zenas: Exactly! Both worlds usually overlap. I still remember a fictional account our chemistry teacher used to make us understand hybridization. If he had no appreciation for storytelling, then his classes would have been boring.
Edith: I am not sure, but I think this divide came with the whole ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ saying, and the ‘many talents is no talents’ quote. That we had to choose; this or that. Most societal values lean towards the fact that if you are a jack of all trades, then you are only shallow, have no stability, and have a weak grasp of everything.
Zenas: Yes, I agree with that too. Also, I think the divide came as a result of people learning for the sake of monetizing that knowledge, instead of learning for fun or just to satisfy a curiosity. It is like, for you to learn something now, you have to intend to build a career out of it. Why know these things if you won’t get employed with all of them? So, we began specializing and keeping to a defined career path. Well, not for me. I’m eternally curious, so I will keep learning about things that interest me, whether I end up using them or not. I’ll be satisfied with being a jack of all trades that interest me, master of one, or two, or three.
Edith: Now that’s the spirit!
And I agree with you; we mostly learn so that we can monetize our knowledge. But is that really new? Don’t our parents take us to school so that we can learn, get employed and take care of our needs and theirs? Isn’t that the same reason their parents took them to school? Or maybe this is just an African thing, I don’t know. I always hear parents say ‘My child will be a doctor, then they will build me a big house and buy me a car.’
Zenas: No, it is not new. I do not think it is an African thing, though. Modern education has always been modelled that way. Learn, gain employment, earn. But besides that, if one can afford to learn for leisure too, why not?
Edith: Why not indeed, why not? Learning for leisure is an interesting concept.
You know this reminds me of a conversation I had with Zanta Nkumane some time back and he spoke of how he and his writer friends “don’t write enough because we actually have jobs—because we go to work and that sucks everything out of us, and then I’m expected to write a phenomenal novel.” He also mentioned how the worry over bills and finances were an obstruction. And though he was talking about the difficulty of writing full time, I’m relating his words to the privilege of learning for leisure.
Because, look at it this way, I may have a constant yearning for new knowledge and skill, but the nature of this Black African existence doesn’t give me time to practice and learn other disciplines. Let us say one has an 8-5 job, after which maybe attending night classes to help them get a promotion at work so that they can build their parents that big house and all. At the end of day, the nature of the lives we live saps all energy from us. Life limits us. To some extent I feel like to be a renaissance person, to be an Uncle Dominic, is a privilege that is not very easy to achieve right now.
Zenas: I remember that interview. He did say something about Baldwin just waking up and writing. Such freedom. Well, for me, working as a freelancer allows me some flexibility. And because I work remotely, I have control over my time. I can always move things around and make space for interests I need to explore. And yes, you are right; to be a renaissance person right now is a privilege not all can afford.
Edith: ‘Make space for interests’ is a brilliant point. I am sure there is a way we can navigate life and still pursue other things if our hearts are in them. Thanks for this.
And back to our model teacher, Uncle Dominic, you write this about him:
“As the days stretched into weeks, into months, the fear of Uncle Dominic waned. He was capable of laughter. He made jokes, and we laughed with him often. We took questions to his desk, which he answered. He had time for every person and paid equal attention to our needs.”
I thought this was a major shift in the story. Right at the beginning, you introduce us to a teacher whose persona instilled fear, and the stories you heard about him only added to his fierceness. Yet in the course of your narration, we see him as strict, yes, but also very kind. A teacher who created positive connections with students while still having high standards for them. Your story made me think about my history teacher, who also has a reputation like Uncle Dominic’s. He too was very strict, but he was kind in his interactions with us. Yet when we spoke about him, we only mentioned him as Dracula.
Why do you think the stories you heard about him from those who had been in his class before you only the negative ones? And after being in his class, were the narratives you told about him to other students different?
“In fine arts classes, I learned about the Renaissance age, and I saw how well people straddled both the art and the science worlds. It always bothered me why our society created that unnecessary divide.“
Zenas: I guess we have all come across teachers whose fierce reputation precedes them. I still met some in my junior and senior secondary school years. Although, unlike with Uncle Dominic, I left most of those classes with whatever story or rumour I had heard about the teachers still untainted. And that’s why Uncle D is special to me.
Children are easy-going beings. The negative stories took precedence because human complexity is not something we understood. Looking at the world that way was also enforced by the films we saw, where one was either a bad person or a good person. No in-between. Also, I noticed some students kept teachers they feared at a distance. Because they were scared of any interactions, they kept themselves out of the teacher’s way. This distance did not allow them to see the other side of Uncle D. So, they left with just the confirmation of the reputation they had heard.
Anyway, for me to escape Uncle Dominic’s wrath, I got close to him. It was why I took a seat close to his desk and joined the extra-curricular activities he oversaw. So, because of my encounters with him both on and off class hours, I saw his softer side. To others in classes below me, the narratives I told about him were just like that in the essay: he was both strict and kind.
Edith: I really like, and even appreciate what you say about children not really understanding ‘human complexities’ at their age because yes, for most of us, before school, we are sheltered and surrounded by those who love and protect us. So, when we join school, which exposes us outside that bubble of love and constant shelter, and come across a teacher who is no-nonsense, it seems to us like they are bad, evil even. They seem to be the first ‘monsters’ we encounter.
Zenas: I miss those times. Those childhood years of being ‘sheltered and surrounded by those who love and protect us’. Life was full of bright colors then. And truly, teachers seem to be the first monsters we encounter. (Laughs). While I was in transition class—a class between nursery school and primary school—I had this teacher whom, till I left primary school, I kept seeing as a monster. I was five or six years old then, and she had used the cane inappropriately on me. The next day, she saw my angry mother. The headmistress had to beg and apologize and scold the teacher and promise my mother it would never happen again. And now I am seeing that even when we briefly tasted life outside that bubble of love and shelter, it was always ready to declare its presence. Knowing we always had that protection gave one a lot of courage.
Edith: My goodness, I used to envy those children whose parents could come to school to protest an injustice against them (laughs). I can only imagine how angry your mom must have been to go there. There was this one time in high school, our deputy headmistress ripped off my skirt from my body because according to her ‘it was tight’. I felt so humiliated and angry, but I never dared to tell my parents. I was afraid the consequences would have been much worse. My reasoning was, okay, after they go back home and I’m left here with the deputy for the rest of the term, even the year, won’t she make my life miserable? I guess I dreaded ‘the terror ahead.’
But you must tell me how it was afterwards with that teacher your mom scolded. Did they hate you? Did the relationship remain the same?
Zenas: I am so sorry about that. Teachers here were also unnecessarily concerned with students’ uniforms. At the time I was a secondary school student, wearing baggy trousers, high-collared shirts, tight skirts, and so on, could earn one some strokes of cane at the assembly ground. The funny thing is, for boys, when skinny jeans became the trend, students began sewing tight trousers, and teachers accepted baggy as the standard uniform, then they punished those who wore skinny trousers.
As for my relationship with the teacher, it remained very official. She stayed out of my way, and I, as much as I could, stayed out of hers, too. Sometimes, when I committed a small crime, she would make angry remarks like, “If I discipline you now, your mother will come to fight. Better behave yourself.” (Laughs).
Edith: My parents should definitely have taken lessons from your mother, but well, my dad was a teacher too, so I don’t know if he would have ever gone to confront another teacher.
But you write this, “Also, I noticed some students kept teachers they feared at a distance. Because they were scared of any interactions, they kept themselves out of the teacher’s way. This distance didn’t allow them to see the other side of Uncle D. So, they left with just the confirmation of the reputation they had heard.”
This is a powerful statement that rings true for life as well. We stay away from things we fear, even if that fear comes from hearsay. This made me interrogate my past interactions. The people I have kept my distance from because of fear of their supposed reputation. From childhood, our brains are wired to stay away from people and things that cause us fear. Why do you think you went against the grain and instead of keeping away from ‘the terror ahead,’ only drew close to it?
Zenas: When I saw my name on that class list, I knew crying and wishing it away would not help me. My mother, who, like Uncle D, was a former student of Unical, said she knew him from school and that he was a good person. I think that lowered my fears. Also, I knew I could always turn to her if things went badly. So, on my part, I did what I thought was the best way to avoid any troubles: be a good student. Because of that, I drew close to him. That aside, his tidiness and brilliance were also a part of the rumors. I was curious to witness them firsthand.
Edith: I know you have said you aspire to be like him—a renaissance man—so I am going to ask you to share how your journey has been so far as an engineer by qualification and a creative writer, and editor. What else are you taking on? And how are you finding the journey?
Zenas: If I am being honest, that engineering dream is dying. Welcome to Nigeria, the killer of dreams. (Laughs). I am not bothered by it, anyway. I would still like to practice, if given the right opportunity. I am still enthralled by cars, their design and construction. So far, I am finding joy in my journey as a creative writer. I am grateful for the publications, the kind readers and their engagements, and, also, for the editors. I feel at home here. Being a writer means reading a lot. Reading a lot opens one to worlds and ideas we would not have come across if we had not embarked on this writing journey. It has changed me a lot, and in a good way.
For the editing side of it, being an intern at Lolwe has been one of the highlights of this year. I’m grateful to Troy Onyango, the founder, for the opportunity. Learning how things work on the backend of journals has increased my appreciation for editors and the work they do. It’s not easy.
What else am I taking on? Oh yeah, I recently started learning UX Design. And it’s interesting how the recurring word there is empathy. The five stages of design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. It was writing and reading that first taught me to lead with empathy.
The UX journey is still young, but pleasant. Looking forward to how it will, like my writing journey, affect my approach to life.
Edith: Wow! Engineering, writing, editing and now UX Design, way to go! But wait, if Nigeria did not kill your engineering dreams, (laughs), so that they would have employed you full time in some firm, do you think you would have still pursued writing? Did you start writing before or after engineering school?
Zenas: If Nigeria did not do their usual, I think I would have still become a writer. The interest has always been there. I have always enjoyed reading. And there is that thing with readers wanting to try their hands at writing. I tried mine towards the end of engineering school. The engineering was draining me. Writing was self-care.
Edith: What you say about ‘readers wanting to try their hands at writing’ is spot on. Just the other day, I was having lunch with someone I went to primary school with and it had been forever since I saw them. And they were like “It almost was obvious that you would have been a journalist.” It is because right from my early days, I have been a passionate bookworm, and it was my wholesale reading that inspired my writing.
And as writers are readers, editors are also writers. And that is why I am keen to hear how you’ve separated being an editorial intern at Lolwe from being a writer, because heaven knows these roles are so intertwined. I ask this because when I started editing, my major struggle was letting the writers maintain their voices. As an editor, I could see how a sentence could be structured better, I could see lines that needed to go, and was always at risk of turning the document to be my own. It took me a long time, and I am not even there yet fully, but clearly knowing that as an editor, even when I’m correcting errors, I still have to maintain that writer’s voice and not force my ideas. So that was a big one for me, still is.
Zenas: I have been struggling with that, too. I have to keep checking that my voice as a writer is not interfering with my editorial suggestion. Initially, I did not know how to go about it. Then I began to pay attention to how the other editors were handling the pieces. After everyone had gone through the works scheduled for publication, I’d read through and take notes. And that has helped a lot.
Edith: I feel you, and happy you are getting the hang of it. What things have fascinated you, shocked you, humbled you about the editorial process?
Zenas: What has fascinated me most is the structure. The level of planning that goes behind the sorting and the release of the issues, the monthly editions, and so on. The finished product looks good on the outside. But behind that glam on the front-end, a lot of backbreaking work was done behind the scenes. As I said earlier, my appreciation for editors has grown.
Edith: Totally! I always can’t wait for when the editor says ‘no more edits on my end’ because phew, the back and forth is definitely backbreaking! I remember submitting this historical essay for publication in June and we spent the whole of July and August on editorial. The piece will go up in a few days and it has undergone a wonderful metamorphosis. It was my first time working with this publication and the two editors I worked with were so thorough and kind and made me own the process throughout. I realised that when you work with brilliant editors, it’s actually exciting and there’s so much to learn, and when they send you that draft full of red marks, you are actually glad for it. So, yay to the amazing editors out there whose sole aim is to make us look good. And another yay for the Lolwe editorial team.
Zenas: And another yay for your forthcoming essay. Looking forward to reading it. Truly, editors make us look good. I enjoy being edited because I know the work will emerge stronger. I see the editorial process as the writing equivalent of gold passing through fire.
Edith: Yes, the famous refiner’s fire. But a lot of tough work is equally done in writing, yes? I mean a reader can go through a piece in four minutes, a piece that took a writer weeks or even months to write. And I am thinking about your works, especially your personal essays. More than the story, the craft, and even time involved, non-fiction is an emotional journey. Because like in Collage, or We are strangers in this land, and specifically in The Terror Ahead, there is a reckoning with the self, an interrogation of the past self, past actions, what you observed or lived through, and then stepping away from that or rather separating yourself from the vulnerability of it, and writing it down in the present. How do you find the whole personal essay writing process?
Zenas: The three essays you have mentioned were less tasking to write because I had already broken that vulnerability barrier with Fragments, published in Afro Anthology’s The Weight of Years, and If You’re Drowning, published in The Voyage Journal. It was in writing those two that I cracked. Fragments took about three months to arrive at a satisfying first draft. It had come from a prompt in Basit Jamiu’s workshop. I remember starting the piece in my younger brother’s room. I sat at his desk, typing, and anytime he passed behind me, I would in some way use my body to shield my laptop’s screen. (Laughs). It was that difficult. But then I thought of other vulnerable essays I had read. That judgement I feared from readers I did not have when I read those essays. Instead, I admired their courage. So, I allowed myself to write, without shame or fear. And when I finished, my brother was my first beta reader. After he read through it, what I saw in his eyes was not judgement but recognition. He saw parts of himself there, which he said aloud. We truly go through the same troubles with many people.
We often hear non-fiction editors or tutors say “make the personal universal”. But sometimes, without trying, if you stick to the personal alone in all its truthfulness, you will strike a universal chord. That realization made me braver to face vulnerability in writing personal essays. As for how I find the whole process, it varies from piece to piece. For instance, while Fragments took me three months to reach a first draft, If You’re Drowning came out in a sitting. There are times when the essay idea comes fully formed. But other times it could come as a scene, which I chase down to see where it leads. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. The ones that fail sit in my folder of failed drafts. I revisit them sometimes to see if there is any Lazarus among them. No matter what form the essay comes in, my first struggle is usually finding an entry point.
One problem with personal essays is that you have too much information at your disposal. When you consider a past moment, so many others in memory begin to surround it. So from where do you start? What do you leave out? All of these can still be sorted through the rewriting process. So sometimes I just begin and write a lot of rubbish, which I then clean up in the second, third, or fourth draft before I pass it to my friends for peer review. They, too, usually spot some fluff I had missed.
Edith: You say a lot of things which I identify with and I’m sure a lot of non-fiction writers will too. Making ‘the personal universal’ is one of them. Sometimes I write and friends, family, even strangers will reach out and like your brother they will say ‘hey, that happened to me too.’ But you, Zenas, are braver than I; I never shared my first non-fiction pieces with my family or friends because, wow! The cowardly me found it safer for strangers to read about those than the people in my circle. Reading your essay, Fragments, reminds me of this quote by Czeslaw Milosz “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
Zenas: I remember having a good laugh the first time I saw Milosz’s quote. The Christian child in me whispered, “My family is not finished, in Jesus’ name.”
Zenas: At that time, I didn’t fully understand the quote. It was in reading Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle that I saw how a writer finishes the family. Truths can be ugly. But non-fiction requires the writer to stand by the truth, no matter how ugly it is. For a memoir that involves other family members, some may not be happy with their portrayal.
Edith: What does your family think about your writing?
Zenas: Growing up, my siblings and I have always been tight knit. We used to play this game where we picked a title and started writing a story out of it. When my writing hand was turning good, it was them who pointed it out. So I began submitting to literary journals. And they are always quick to read and share my publications. As for my parents, I am not sure they know much. I doubt they have read any of my works. Maybe they have, but I’m not sure. We usually do not talk about it. The closest I have come to having the conversation with my mother was one time she asked why people were congratulating me on Facebook. I was shortlisted for a writing prize, I told her. She just smiled and wished me well, and that was it. They know I write though. I usually interview them when I need information, and because they know I need it for something I am working on, they are always elaborate, asking me if their answers were enough.
Edith: I interview my parents for a lot of my stories to, seeing as I usually write historical narratives. And just like you, they support my writing, but I doubt they read all my stuff. Which is okay for me, I guess.
And again, what you say about there being too much information and the need to sift through what is relevant or not, I agree, that is a difficult one. Was it the same when you were writing The Terror Ahead? How many drafts did it go through before you submitted?
Zenas: Yes, it was the same. The drama I write about in the narrative, for example. We had many drama performances. But I had to pick one. For this particular essay, there was a deadline to meet, so I could not stay with it for too long. I think the most I could do was four drafts. But in the editing stage, I had three or four back and forth with Darlington, so that tied up loose ends.
Edith: I am glad you have mentioned the drama because I would like to ask you about it. Like you write, you guys were about eight or nine years old and there you were, acting in a play that highlighted gender violence, HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, promiscuity, etc. Themes that could have been considered inappropriate for your age.
And that makes me think about ‘taboo topics’ that we were not taught in school. I remember a couple of weeks ago a friend and I were discussing how sex education, and how things like condoms and other contraception were not taught in schools and even now, are not taught in some schools, because parents and even religious establishments think such “pollute” the minds of children.
But tell me, before you were in this play, did you know about domestic violence, about HIV and the things you were acting out? Did you understand these themes? How did this drama influence your thoughts about those subjects?
Zenas: Before the drama, we had been seeing things about those topics on TV. Sometimes, too, we heard stories. I would not say that I understood them in a way a grown up would. I just knew domestic violence was bad, excessive drinking was bad, HIV/AIDS was at large. Around that time, a lot of TV ads warned against sharing sharp objects, encouraged use of condoms, abstinence, and so on. Hair salons began taking sterilization of clippers seriously. So, yes, I knew about them before the drama. For how it influenced my thoughts, I cannot tell. Maybe it was subtle, so I did not notice. I only remember having a good time performing my role.
Edith: Ah, cool. Back to the story, it is very descriptive. You write how uncle Dominic was,
“a stoutly built man who had visible, neatly shaved cheekbones. His moustache looked as thick and black as his well-polished shoes. His shirts were always pressed and tucked into his trousers that had creases as sharp as the edge of a block. When he walked, his shoes thudded floors, and his approaching steps calmed the halls. When he spoke, his baritone stilled us.”
This is just one example, but the whole narration is full of vivid descriptions, sensory and small details that thoroughly immerse the reader in. And that actually applies to all your non-fiction pieces. How have you been able to achieve that? To go beyond the bare telling of facts and paint pictures with your words?
Zenas: Oh, thank you. I borrow a lot from film and art. One of the ways I spend my leisure time is to go on YouTube and watch art historians deconstructing a painting. The way they describe what is in the canvas is so precise that if your eyes were closed, you could imagine the image in your mind. Watching them made me want to describe things vividly too.
Edith: Okay, this is new and shocking, but in a good way! I never imagined that the deciphering of paintings could have been a contributing factor in your excellent descriptions. But yes, now that you mention it, I can see how it comes in. The narrators are usually exceedingly detail-oriented.
Zenas: I should add that some writers contributed to this, too. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is one book that challenges you to make scenes more evocative.
Edith: The God of Small Things has been on my to-read list for ages, at least now you’ve given me a reason to read it.
Zenas: Yes, please do read it.
Edith: Tell me, of all the teachers you have had, and I’m sure you have had many over the years, with different flairs and flavours. Why did you particularly choose to write about Uncle Dominic? And where is he now? Do you know?
Zenas: From what I heard, he is still in Calabar. My family moved to a different city after my primary school, so I lost touch. I heard he works at the university now–that Unical where he used to study. I choose to write about Uncle Dominic because my time with him built the bases for a lot of things for me. My appreciation for math, drama, and so on. I have had other great teachers after him, but they all built on the foundation he had laid.
Edith: How lovely, I hope he will get to read The Terror Ahead, or even maybe this interview, to see how great an influence he had on you.
You write both fiction and non-fiction. How do you find the switch?
Zenas: The switch is not easy for me. Since I began writing non-fiction, I have become slow at writing fiction. Many I started I have left unfinished.
Edith: Oh shucks, me too. In my earlier days I wrote a lot of fiction, but ever since I started non-fiction, I find it so difficult to write fiction. Like you, I have so many abandoned drafts. I think once one has crossed into that realm of non-fiction, we come to agree with Mark Twain that “truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” and so going back to the realm of the imagined may be difficult.
Lastly, are you working on anything now? Is anything cooking in the Zenas literary kitchen to make us take out our forks and napkins? And where can our readers find your previous works, or just keep up with you?
Zenas: (Laughs). Yes, just a few essays that are yet to take form. And my previous works can be found here.
Edith: Thank you so much for speaking with me Zenas. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Zenas: Thank you, too, Edith. It was a pleasure.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Edith Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight