Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is an assistant professor in the Department of English, University of Calgary, Canada. His teaching and research interests include African and Black Diaspora literatures, postcolonial literatures, gender and sexuality, cultural studies, and creative writing. Umezurike is the author of creative works such as there’s more (poetry, 2023), Double Wahala, Double Trouble (short stories, 2021), and Wish Maker (children’s novel, 2021).
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and Kampala, via email.
Davina: I recently read Gaamangwe Joy Mogami’s interview with Nii Ayikwei Parkes, which appeared in the first issue of Africa in Dialogue. I was intrigued by their discussion about the scariness of the blank page. When Mogami asks how Parkes navigates and crosses the threshold of not allowing the fear of the blank page to hold him back, his response is that “It’s a mindset”:
“What I have learnt to do in the years has been to allow myself to be a child over and over again. Because I think what holds us back is the idea that we have to be worthy of something; that our work has to have weight and impact, and be worthy of consideration by great minds. I find that if I relinquish myself to the idea that it can be silly, fun and senseless, then I don’t hold myself back. Then the process brings in a sense of joy and possibilities. If the input is relaxed and flexible like that, then the output will be inspired because the creation of it escapes logic, and logic is a thing that holds us back. Great creations often defy logic, and so that’s where we should go.
“I also maintain this childlike approach with editing, because if I approach editing with the idea that I have edited fifty books, therefore I am an expert on putting books together, then if somebody has work unlike what I have seen before, I will start to judge it in the wrong way. But if I approach it with the hat of a child, then it’s new work and I am more open to receiving that work as something that is complete, revolutionary and something that the world doesn’t know. Another thing I do is I don’t write for what people expect or edit for what the trends are because people change every day. I am drawn to novelty as it’s a key element of being free to write, receive, read and engage.”
Let’s start with your relationship with the blank page, Uche.
Uche: There isn’t one dominant emotion that shapes my relationship to the blank page. Instead, I see the blank page as an invitation to a world waiting to unravel itself to me, a world that is no less fecund. I do not always honour that invitation since it depends on my mental or emotional energy, barring everyday demands. Energy is, of course, also a question of how I feel when an image or idea impresses itself on my mind, urging me to translate it on the page and make it legible enough to be coherent.
If I feel energized enough, then I begin to note something down. Energy may be a feeling of delight or even a sense of disappointment, so at times I might find myself writing from a place of joy or sadness. During other times, curiosity or wonder holds me in its grip, and I have to write about that image or idea roaming in my mind.
Davina: You are quoted here speaking about how your research “…has always focused on how men and women are represented in fiction and what that says about the larger society — how certain gender ideologies and sexual norms define how we should recognize, relate to, accept or even affirm people.”
Mention is also made of your involvement in a project which considers ‘…how African Canadian filmmakers and writers imagine their new home in Canada, “particularly within the context of Indigenous Peoples and their sovereignty.”’
What other things/topics arouse your curiosity (I’m thinking here of both academic and non-academic spaces)?
Uche: I don’t want to draw much distinction between academic and non-academic because they feed into and enrich each other. There’s no academic without the non-academic in the strict sense. The academic is just an elevated, more regulated way of thinking about the non-academic; for instance, gender or sexuality is a topic everyone is interested in.
That said, I don’t know whether I should call this homesickness but I’m thinking more about home and what it means to be able to live and work in Canada while relatives and friends struggle to survive the stench of pervasive leadership failure. I think of the toll this takes on the psyche of the citizens struggling to eat and breathe and exist. It saddens me to take in the news coming out of Nigeria. I can’t understand the cruelty of the political class, hell-bent on keeping these hardworking Nigerians perennially impoverished.
Notwithstanding, I also think about hope, even as we have to grapple with the gloom and insanity of structural oppression and domination or the fear of the Other or people who don’t look or speak like us. These days I am finding joy in small things and activities; I want to delight as much as I can in activities that cause joy.
I enjoy listening to the blackbirds and jays in the trees outside my windows; they sing songs no poetry can yet capture. Other times, I watch movies and listen to music. There are moments when I want to sit so still that I can hear myself breathing. I sometimes sit in the shade of those trees during sunsets. I find it very calming, especially in this age of productivity overflow and information deluge.
Then, I always admire good writing; I am simply awed by it. I am amazed by the beauty of great prose or poetry, and I draw inspiration and motivation from my encounter with such work.
Davina: Ugandan-Canadian writer Iryn Tushabe speaks of home as “a complicated amalgam of the people and places in Uganda that shaped me, and Regina, Saskatchewan, where I became a writer”:
“I write about home and movement in search of home because I live in that in-between place. A Ugandan-Canadian place, which can be small [and] marginalizing. But…I think it’s also a wonderful place to create from, to have that vantage point of an insider-outsider. The danger for me then becomes that of overly romanticizing Uganda, painting it only in the beautiful colours of nostalgia when in fact it’s a real place with real problems, some of which I was glad to get away from.”
“I think every creative work functions as a kind of haunting; I doubt there is any creative writer who is not haunted by the urge to translate their impression of or encounter with the world into something legible and resonant.”
Uche: I think every space can be generative for writing, for it only depends what the writer actually wants to do in whatever space they find themselves – material or liminal.
I suppose you have read and heard about writers who wrote remarkable works of poetry and prose while in prison or refugee camps. There are poets, memoirists, and novelists who wrote great literature during times of war and genocide. We could talk about Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Jack Mapanje, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nawal el Sadaawi, to name a few.
I don’t want to romanticize the Nigerian or Canadian space or privilege one space over the other. However, Canada certainly offers the African migrant writer more access to resources, which, sadly, are denied to fellow writers on the continent. This is where the anemic political class is to be blamed for Africa’s contemporary woes.
Davina: I’ve just finished N. K. Jemisin’s Emergency Skin. Jemisin takes an everyday idea – of having a skin – and uses it to create a story that is as delightful as it is surprising.
I remember thinking that, perhaps, if I’d spent time thinking seriously about the implications of having a skin, I, too, could have written this story.
Don’t you find that this is often what good writers do? Make writing look so easy? Convince us that we, too, could have written the same story? When, of course, we probably couldn’t have?!
Uche: I will try to respond to that question this way: I think every writer writes from their own experience of and relationship with the world, and so they share their vision of life as best they can, which is singular, unique, and integral to the global narratives of humanity.
I usually tell aspiring writers to feel comfortable writing their own story, from their own position or space. We all cannot write the same story or in the same way,
for that would be totally boring. It is possible that some writers may wish or even long to write like a particular writer or their favourite writers.
I cannot recall if I have ever been in such a position where I want to write like someone else, or even wish I had written the exact story or poem a fellow writer I had read. I don’t want to be in that position. I always admire good writing and I am simply awed by it. I also feel amazed by the beauty of great prose or poetry, and I draw inspiration and motivation from my encounter with such work, but that’s where it ends for me. Each writer has something to offer to the world, and it is enough that we have the opportunity to share our unique view of life with one another.
Davina: Is Wreaths for Wayfarers the only anthology you’ve edited? What’s your usual attitude/outlook when you’re editing other people’s work?
Uche: Yes, it is for now, and I enjoyed the co-editing process. I think Wreaths for a Wayfarer is among the best-edited and most ambitious poetry anthologies produced in Africa.
As it stands, I am considering collaborating with a writer and editor for another project, but I haven’t yet decided if it is something I want to commit to at this time. Time will tell, anyway.
If I recall correctly, I noticed I was more aware of the extra care and compassion required of me while editing some of the poems that ultimately made it into the anthology. Perhaps this is what editors do, pay more attention to what the writer is saying or seeing.
Maybe to be an editor is to see over the writer’s shoulder in a way that offers a layered perspective that further enriches the writer’s work. That is my sense of what I got out of co-editing that anthology.
Davina: Yes, I like to think of editing the same way. As a call to enrich another writer’s work. I find this kind of enrichment easier to manage when I approach the editorial process from a place of care/compassion/empathy rather than, say, a place of knowledge.
I tell friends who send their work to me that anything I suggest is merely that: a suggestion. That, if they disregard my suggestions, there will be no hard feelings on my side.
Were writers allowed to reject/disagree with your edits? Or was unquestioning acceptance of your edits a requirement for publication?
Uche: I think the work editors do is important and, for me, I always appreciate the insight an editor brings to my work. Now, I don’t recall any of the poets rejecting our suggested edits of their poems for the anthology, Wreaths for Wayfarers.
The goal, of course, was to support them to strengthen their works and clarify aspects that seemed a little vague or lacking. And to be clear, we didn’t insist on a particular way of writing or compel the poets in any way. We wanted poetry that spoke to the themes we set out to cover in the anthology. It was generally a mutual satisfying experience between the poets and us.
Davina: Nadra Mabrouk speaks about a strong belief in “allowing each poem to do what it will and what it must in this world”:
I often look at poems as breathing, living pieces of the artist. Each reader will share a different relationship to the work. There will be a different memory brought up each time. There will be a different voice drifting through their minds. How the poem sings and hums will sound differently to every ear and bone. These are moments that go beyond the writer’s control, though we have the sensibility to create the moments, we cannot predict the way the piece will travel into another body. The beauty of the work is in its emotional complexity. We must learn to let it free into the world to do its work.
From which piece(s) of you did there’s more emerge? What beliefs, about poetry, have strengthened/weakened themselves in you over the years?
Uche: That’s an interesting question, Davina. Thank you. The poem, there’s more, stayed in my mind – or instead haunted me – for close to two years before I could write it. I think every creative work functions as a kind of haunting; I doubt there is any creative writer who is not haunted by the urge to translate their impression of or encounter with the world into something legible and resonant.
Thus, this poem came as a haunting; it came to me after I read about the news of immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. I remember reading about the Nigerian girls buried in Italy after some sailors found their boat off Lampedusa. That was in 2017, I think, and I grew angry with the Nigerian government and its chronic apathy towards human lives, which hasn’t changed one bit even now. Unable to make sense of such a tragedy, I began to reflect on what poetry can do for me or how it can help me grapple with such loss. So, I began to imagine the lives of different victims who died in these crossings and pursuits of the good life in Europe. That’s how I came to write that poem, born out of anger and my rumination about something still happening as we speak. That encounter with human loss became a stimulus for my poetry.
My belief about poetry has not weakened; if anything, it has strengthened mainly because poetry allows me to reflect on my connection with the world, especially since poetry makes it possible for me to revel in the capaciousness of language and shun the tendency to centre myself in the world. After all, each of us is simply a speck in the collective universe of humanity.
Davina: About revelling in the capaciousness of language, have you always felt this way, Uche? Or were there moments when language, alone, wasn’t enough?
When I started writing, I was always at a loss: always worrying about how to document what I felt was the un-grapple-able-ness of life. I felt, then, that language could never be large or extensive enough. I was told several times that, as I got better at writing, this feeling would fade; that language would become roomier. Unfortunately, nothing has changed. If anything, I worry more about that now than I used to.
If there have been moments when language hasn’t seemed enough, how have you attempted to correct the perceived “imbalance?”
Uche: I did not feel this way until I began appreciating creative writing, in particular. It’s fascinating how artists and creatives use words to touch our bodies and hearts and connect with us in ways we never imagined.
The capaciousness of language lies in how we can, to an extent, represent a semblance of an idea or thought the world or encounters or events have impressed on us. In this case, language offers us a means to share that idea, thought, or impression with another.
Yet, language may fall short of carrying the heft or fullness of that received or shared idea, thought, or impression. I think, there lies the paradox: language can seem capacious and still finite; it can be abundant and yet there are times it is barely enough to reflect or express certain thoughts or contours of emotion. Even now, I don’t know if I have spoken in a language that fully or closely conveys my fascination with language.
Davina: (Chuckles.) there’s more is described as a poem that “travels around the world, gathering stories about people who search for new beginnings despite the dangers that lurk in the deserts and in the seas, dangers that nip dreams at the bud, but which our seekers must brave for their sanity, for a moment away from the despair they leave behind.”
Is this how you describe it?
Uche: One of the beautiful things about poetry is its reception, how the reader receives it and comes to converse with and interpret the world evoked by the poet. The reader’s conversation with my poetry is a gift I value. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to read the juror’s citation regarding the poem. I felt honoured by the comments about my poetry, and I realized that I had, indeed, written a story of diverse people entranced by the spectral dream of prosperity in Europe.
Still, I agree with Mabrouk that each reader enters the world of poetry through a different path, so what one reader finds along the way might be different from what the other reader has seen or received. And that speaks to the complexity of literature, be it a poem or a short story; it offers each reader an experience uniquely theirs. And that’s a wonder, that’s the richness of writing and reading literature.
“I write fourteen-line poems that aren’t sonnets in the traditional sense. One such poem is called “fourteen lines make a sonnet or an overdose”. I initially wanted that poem to be a proper sonnet with a strict rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter, the works, but the subject matter of the poem made me decide otherwise.”
To rephrase Nkateko’s question to Jeremy, do you keep a list of broken rules? Are you proud of them, how they represent your refusal to accept authority, code, and convention? Or are you reticent about them, perhaps because you don’t want other poets to find out that you, a whole Professor of English, are a rebel?
What place, in your body of rebellion, might you give to there’s more?
Uche: I don’t keep any rules, conventions, or live by some rituals. I just try to live simply, as best I can, and free of complications, which conventions, necessary as they may be, can sometimes impose on human relationships.
I don’t see myself as a rebel, because that comes with much responsibility. Just being human is rebellious enough since there are some people amongst us who want to question or devalue or even annihilate your humanity.
That act of simply being and becoming, for me, is rebellion: to exist, to write, to insist that I matter, that we all matter, in the community of humans and nonhumans. To assert my creativity and signpost certain anomalies in society is the only way I know of rebelling. But that could be some form of privilege, though.
If there’s anything I would like readers of there’s more to take away, it is this: that kinship matters – kinship in the broad sense; kinship that acknowledges our shared vulnerability; kinship that recognizes each other’s pain. Kinship that exceeds the norms of biology is necessary and urgent in this moment of heightened fascist and racist ideologies that reinforce fear and hatred for marginalized peoples, groups, and communities.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.