Fatima Okhuosami is a pharmacist and avid consumer of literature and global politics. Some of her poems and short stories are published online or in print at: The Kalahari Review, Chillfiltr Review, Jalada Africa, Everyday Fiction, Agbowó Magazine, 101 Words, Third Word Press, Kreative Diadem, Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, Itanile Magazine, and others. She was a runner-up of the December 2020 Collins Elesiro Literary Prize. She is a graduate of the 2019 International Writing Programme Lines & Spaces Tour held in Abuja, Nigeria.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation is a result of WhatsApp texts and audios from Kampala to Nigeria and back.
Charity: Congratulations on being shortlisted and eventually winning the second prize of the inaugural Kendeka Prize for African Literature.
Fatima: Hello Charity. Thanks for extending an invite.
Charity: “The Women of Atinga House” is an eye-opener. What is the message in this amazing story and what inspired this strong narrative?
Fatima: “The Women of Atinga House” was inspired by an event I partook in. Some colleagues and I were visiting a brothel to share condoms, do free HIV tests and all that. Work stuff. I remember just being fascinated by the place. Blocks upon blocks of super tiny rooms covering several acres. The environment was dirty. It smelt foul. You know, alcohol, weed, deafening music from a centralised bar, drunkards. All of that. The place did not even have a signpost. What struck me the most however, was the working girls in exaggerated make-up and second hand clothes. Some even had their babies with them.
In our society, sex is often shrouded in shame and secrecy; in a low-budget brothel, it is embraced as mundane…like eating or drinking. The girls hated their lives. They hated each other and feared their boss. That kind of memory sticks with you and it was inevitable that it would later translate into a story.
Charity: Wow. This memory surely stuck with you. From your narration I can make out pictures of the place and its horror. Sex is indeed a topic Africans don’t like to discuss in public, let alone discuss at all. I am thrilled to see you bringing out the things we would rather keep in the closet.
Turning to the girls in the brothel, oftentimes these girls end up here because they are looking for a source of survival. In your winning story, Nkem’s life falls apart when they are thrown out of their home. They do not fancy to live in these places that they hate so much, under circumstances they so detest. But life has thrown them in this deep ditch and the attempts to climb out have them gripping onto such strings. We also see it in the way they hold white men in high esteem, thinking that by engaging with one, you’ve surely made it in life and have ‘arrived’.
“In our society, sex is often shrouded in shame and secrecy; in a low-budget brothel, it is embraced as mundane…like eating or drinking.“
Fatima: Yes, exactly. And when you have got a white man who is a doctor, to a struggling sex worker, he’s a mini god!
Charity: Nkem, Omoyemwen, Ijeoma or Okoye? Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Fatima: Nkem was the most difficult to write and her part went through multiple edits. The story was initially meant to be from Omoyemwen’s point of view (POV) only but when I decided to expand to two POVs, Nkem was the most logical choice (Ijeoma having more of a backstage, weak personality). It was obvious she’d have a strong personality and I had to find the best way to link Ijeoma, Chairlady and her while showing what love can do to even the most strong-headed person. And the way her story ends? That took me weeks!
Charity: You really did put in so much work. And in the end, it all paid off. What books/authors have most influenced your own writing?
Fatima: Yeah, the editing took a lot of time and thinking but it paid off, as you’ve stated. I have been heavily influenced by all of Cyprian Ekwensi‘s works. His stories are mesmerising, well put together and relatable. From him, I learned that in fiction, a piece must have continuity (beginning, middle and end). I would also say Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe are patrons whose works I enjoy. Overall, Fyodor Dostoevsky is in my opinion, the best author who has ever lived and I hope someday, I can write a story half as good as any of his.
Charity: You mentioned Cyprian Ekwensi, and this made me run back to your bio. He was a pharmacist, teacher, film maker, among others and yet flourished as an author too. Are you a practicing pharmacist? What is your work schedule like when you are writing? Dispensing drugs by day and writing stories at night?
Fatima: Oh, I didn’t even know that Cyprian Ekwensi was a pharmacist. That’s interesting. I just like his novels. I like the way he puts his stories together. I like the idea that he is from the Eastern part of Nigeria but he writes mainly based on Northerners. Yes, I am a practicing pharmacist. I do not really write while I am working. Sometimes I get ideas for stories while at work, so I make use of my Notes app and jot down that idea and later when I am free, especially during weekends and long holidays, I build up on the idea. It is not possible for me to write while I work because I need to sit down, I need to think, I need to put everything together and you cannot be doing that when you are working with patients and all that. Usually I don’t even have ideas when I am very busy. But once in a while if something comes up I just write it down and leave it alone until something else comes up for me to build on what I have already written. When I am done writing everything, I can do the editing while I am working because then it is not so much of a big deal. So that is how the writing process is for me.
Charity: Lastly, what other genres do you hope to explore in the future?
Fatima: I do not think I want to explore any other genre, apart from writing fiction, short stories and poetry. And the poetry I write is mostly narrative poetry because it is almost like a short story; just shorter and straight to the point. These are things I actually like writing. I don’t like writing non-fiction. Not even reading it.
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.