Confronting Otherness: A Dialogue with Okpanachi Irene Ojochegbe
Okpanachi Irene Ojochegbe is a content writer and graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, with a BSc degree in Sociology. When not writing content, she loves to write, sing, listen to music, draw, eat (yes, she is a HUGE foodie), play video games, and watch movies.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation took place on WhatsApp between Uganda and Nigeria, filled with laughter emoticons that we hope you will be able to feel as you read on.
Charity: Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on winning the third prize in the inaugural Kendeka Prize for African Literature. Tell me how you reacted on receiving this exciting news. Did you scream out loud?
Irene: Thank you very much, Charity. I think I was shocked for the most part of the experience. It still does not feel real. I never expected to win. I didn’t scream or react. It just felt so surreal.
Charity: I know! (Laughs). “Au Pair” is such a captivating story. I could not take my eyes off the screen till the end, almost breathless. What inspired this piece of work?
Irene: Honestly, it was random. I wish I could say it was some great book I read or a movie. But it wasn’t inspired by anything special. When my friend Maryam, (God bless her) sent me the link to the competition, I struggled with ideas on what to write. In the end, I just got to it without overthinking it and I started from there. Actually, “Au Pair” has been an old idea at the back of my mind. I thought of writing something unique and focused on Blackness as a theme. But I did not know how to map out the story. So you could say the Kendeka Prize gave me the push I needed to develop it. I have even gone as far as plotting the end of the book.
Charity: Wow, now that is some fantastic art. You did well at what you set out to do. The relationship between Madame Lafayette and her staff, especially the Black people, is striking. Madame did not care about interpersonal relationships and the workers were also very careful not to cross into her personal space. She does not trust a Black woman with her study and is horrified at the sight or touch of a Black person. I love the twist of events when the Madame dismisses Maude instead of Eniola like we would expect given the flow of events. Racism is a huge subject and I commend you for tackling it. Many Black writers have confessed to facing difficulties in the publishing industry because of the colour of their skin and the nature of their stories. In an interview series titled ‘A Conflicted Cultural Force’: What It’s Like to Be Black in Publishing in the New York Times, Kerri K. Greenidge, the author of Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter says:
“I knew entering graduate school what I wanted to study, which was African-descended people in New England. And from the beginning, I was told that nobody was going to publish that, unless I was writing about slavery, or unless I was writing about the busing crisis. No one was interested in that history. . .My book on William Trotter, every place I submitted the manuscript to, the response was that no one was going to read that book that did not have white people as a protagonist, and who was going to read a book about a Black man that nobody had ever heard about?”
She was frustrated, but she never gave up. We are lucky to have spaces like The Kendeka Prize that offer to specialise in publishing Black stories and also people like you that bring our stories to the world. What do you think is the future of African writing?
“African stories have been pushed under the rug for a long time. Black existence is often denied in literature, and I feel that this is erecting a huge barrier between us and other worlds out there.“
Irene: I agree. I for one can say that I am lucky to have stumbled across the Kendeka Prize for African Literature. I feel that African stories have been pushed under the rug for a long time. Black existence is often denied in literature, and I feel that this is erecting a huge barrier between us and other worlds out there. If this was an American-sponsored competition, I am pretty sure my entry would have been rejected, misunderstood, or just plain unrelatable. For me, the future of African writing is one that breaks the barrier of race. I would like to be able to travel abroad one day and walk into a bookstore and see African books on the shelves in their undiluted forms. The future of African literature is one where we do not have to fine tune our pieces as writers so they fit unrealistic expectations of what the ideal book should be. A Black secondary school girl protagonist is just as interesting as a white high school main character. That is the best part of literature. There are just too many opportunities to spin a story into whatever we want to let race limit the reading experience. Imagine a world where all the books you pick up have strictly white, Latin American or Asian characters. I certainly would not want to live in that sort of world.
Charity: That would be such a boring world, far from the ideal, I totally agree! Your short story also extensively digs into the effects of poverty on African societies. From the nomenclature and its ties to poverty, to the ways we often think poverty chains can be broken. It is no secret that most of us view ‘outside countries’ as opportunities for wealth creation. The things that poverty makes us do and put up with! However, even in those moments, we hold home close to our hearts. Home is home. What in your view, is the real meaning of home and belonging? Is migration wholly linked to success, or this is an ageing postcolonial condition that leads to a desperate search for legitimization from systems and traditions that have historically dismissed us?
Irene: To me, home is where not where the heart is, as the popular saying goes. Rather, it is where you make it. If I had had the chance to write more chapters than the Kendeka word limit permitted me to, you would come to learn that my main character, Eniola, eventually forgets about her family. She falls in love with the Madame’s son and decides for a moment to stay in France longer. The heart can be misleading and I think when it comes to where your home is, it is a matter of choice. We humans are adaptable creatures. We can fit in anywhere if we choose to. And on the matter of migration, I think it goes both ways. It depends on the location and where you are migrating to. And then it also depends on the person themselves. Using my country as an example, I would say migration is necessary to anyone who can afford it. It is no secret that the economy is deteriorating every day and becoming unfavourable for both the rich and poor alike.
It dampens the creativity of the young, and if there is the slightest chance to leave such an environment to a better place, then I would take it. But then it is not always a guarantee for success. You could end up leaving everything you know behind and going to somewhere worse. So I would not say it’s wholly linked to success, but it does play a part in the success of an individual.
Charity: Perfectly said. The environments we live in influence our writing a lot. Creativity needs a favourable environment to be able to germinate and grow into something beautiful. The title of your story, “Au Pair”, strikes a chord. What does it mean? And how did you arrive at these particular two words? Also, what is the significance of this title?
Irene: An Au Pair is a young person who commits to child care responsibilities in exchange for cultural experience. There are countries like the US that support this system. The Au Pair comes to live in a foreign country with a host family. The host family teaches the Au Pair about their culture and in exchange, the Au Pair cares for their young children. What separates the Au Pair from your normal nanny is that there is no discrimination. The Au Pair is treated as an equal and made to feel like part of the family. I wish I could say that’s the case for Eniola, but as you’ve read, it isn’t. I can’t exactly recall where I learnt the word from, but I can say I’ve been obsessed with it since I came across it.
As I mentioned earlier, the world refers to a helper who is equal to a host family. It holds a deep meaning in the case of Eniola, and a really ironic one at that since she’s anything but an equal to the Lafayettes. They practically remind her everyday that she is Black and so by default, she cannot fit in. There is a part of my story where Eniola says that the official documents may recognize her as an Au Pair, she is anything but one. She is no different to a maid at this point. Overall, it means you can give people labels, but that does not change how people really see them. My name can be Irene on paper, but you are going to have a hard time convincing people to believe otherwise if they have already set their minds to think that it’s not. So basically, that is why I chose the title “Au Pair” for my story.
Charity: Food, eating habits and culinary customs in Africa are one way of labelling societies. Chinua Achebe extensively uses the kola nut and palm wine as an advance to conversations and matters of daily life. Seeing that you are a foodie, if you were a tour guide, what Nigerian dish/es would you like a visitor to taste and what impression would you want them to take away when they leave?
Irene: I would definitely want visitors to taste pounded yam and white soup (Ofe Nsala). I love it because it’s unique, and both sides are made from mashed yam. Besides the pounded yam, the soup is also made with bits of yam in it.
The reason I picked pounded yam is because of its versatility. You can eat it with bean soup, okra, vegetables, groundnut soup, egusi, etc. I think that is one impression I would like people to take away from it. There is also the rhythmic process involved in making it, you could almost say it is like music. As a child, hearing the mortar and pestle banging in the kitchen was the highlight of my days. It meant I would get to eat my favourite food, and I’d literally count the days until the next time I could do that again. It still brings a nostalgic feeling till date, and it is a feeling I’d love to pass on to other foodies like me.
Charity: I want to eat this already! Are you working on anything at present that you would like to share with your readers?
Irene: Officially, no. I am guilty of writing stories I do not get to finish. But if anything, this experience with the Kendeka Prize has taught me to put more effort into my writing and push myself to develop more stories. So I can say for certain that “Au Pair” is just the first of many stories you will hear of.
Charity: Well done, Irene. We hope to read more from where this one came from. And we wish you the very best in your endeavours. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.
Irene: Thank you for the well wishes. This has been an interesting conversation. Thank you for having it with me too.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the project coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. Her work has appeared in The Kampala Sun, Afreecan Read Magazine and is forthcoming in Sahifa magazine. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother.