Eugene Yakubu holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Literature in English from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He is a book reviewer at Words Rhymes and Rhythm Publishers and Sevhage Publishers. He writes literary essays and creative nonfiction on Gender, Human Rights and Non-Normative identities. His nonfiction stories have been shortlisted for Gerald Kraak Prize and Writivism Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction.
BY TSHEPO PHOKOJE
This dialogue happened between Maun, Botswana and Nigeria through an exchange of Whatsapp texts.
Tshepo: Eugene, congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction Award. How to Wear Your Body is such a moving and beautiful story. Take me through the inspiration behind it and why there was a need for you to write it.
Eugene: Thank you. Yes, How to Wear Your Body is a moving story because it was inspired by real-life events, my experience with an aunt who is battling cancer and her daughter’s anxiety over testing positive to cancer too, thinking it runs in the family line since her grandma died of something similar. And I noticed that a woman’s beauty is defined through masculine perspectives, so I wanted to use How to Wear Your Body to deconstruct that sentiment, and prove that womanhood, no matter how altered it may seem is a treasure beyond price. How to Wear Your Body preaches that the corporeal body may rot but womanhood is so much more than carrying the perfect body and the best curves. It’s how to carry your sex around with pride. I think that was the need for a story like How to Wear Your Body.
Tshepo: I can relate with how much it must have hurt to remember any of these events, the visits to the hospital, the smell of medicine. “It isn’t cancer.” Why did she deny it at first?
Eugene: Good question. I think most readers of this work seem to overlook the stigma part of the story I tried to chip in. There’s a thing about cancer that people talk about in hushed tone. It’s a dead end around here, and the fact that it must have messed you up, looking at your body eating you, is something most people don’t wanna talk about. Husbands tend to neglect their wives who have had mastectomies, the world seems to stare at the ‘breastless woman’. At the end, the stigma is something people want to run away from. But in the end, the daughter in the story conquered her situation and lived above the stigma. The agitation over her mother’s condition is what makes her willing to deny the truth, at least to run away from herself, from her pain.
“And I noticed that a woman’s beauty is defined through masculine perspectives, so I wanted to use How to Wear Your Body to deconstruct that sentiment, and prove that womanhood, no matter how altered it may seem is a treasure beyond price.“
Tshepo: That makes sense. The beauty of Creative Nonfiction is just how it can tell the story in detail because the imagination doesn’t need to stretch extensively and it is the realness of it that adds richness to a story. How long did it take for you to write the story?
Eugene: I wrote the story in a week or so, but I’ve always envisioned it in mind. It actually haunted me for a while, having to come face to face with a relative living with cancer, examining her battered breast in the mirror. Ever since I knew, it was something I was going to write about some day. So when the Writivism Koffi Addo call for entries came, I had to relive these images, went on research, interviewed the person whom this story is about and finally it birthed “How to Wear Your Body”.
Tshepo: It is sad that even in this day and age, the stigma that is associated with this ugly disease still lingers on. It makes one wonder why we as people are that ignorant and cold. Instead of caring, we would rather gossip and stare with disgust. We make it seem like it is someone’s fault to be sick.
The societal expectations of what a woman should look like are enough pressure. But don’t you think we also put ourselves under pressure unnecessarily? How we do everything to be as fake and perfect as possible? What do you think could be the reason for women who haven’t had mastectomy to want to have silicone in their bodies?
Eugene : True, I think it all boils down to saying the world defines a woman’s beauty through masculine perspectives, there is so much fretting to fit into that category that the society calls beauty. Some women believe that men would rather go for a woman with big boobs, so they try everything they can to get whatever that would make men think them beautiful. This is actually how far patriarchy affects the society, the belief that a woman must fit into some patriarchal label to be woman enough is baseless. That’s what I tried to achieve with “How to Wear Your Body”. I tried to preach that a woman is an independent category and can survive for who she is, no matter how she may be, and not having to seek credibility from men.
Tshepo: Thank you for the gospel.
Audre Lorde’s post-mastectomy statement in which she says, “Amputation is a physical and psychic reality that must be integrated into a new sense of self…” is very powerful. I am relating it to any type of loss which at some point in our lives we might have to endure. Would you say that these words have changed the daughter’s perspective in regards to her possible risk of having Breast Cancer?
Eugene: It does, I think. The daughter represents everything that is at odds with her mother’s generation, she’s the informed woman, and she wants to take possession of her body. She wants to own and wear it like a flag, no matter how atrophied it may seem. Lorde’s statement is very important to the story; it’s in fact the backbone of “How to Wear Your Body”. The statement prepares you for loss when it eventually comes. It’s something relatable and the daughter did a good job living Lorde’s statement.
Tshepo: Good stories usually haunt us long enough until they finally seep out, it is the reality of a writer. Cancer is a painful disease from what I have read and heard and we need more stories of this kind to highlight the experiences of different people, from those affected and the ones who survived it. Your story has that much relevance. I applaud you.
Eugene: Thanks a lot. It means a lot coming from you. Thank you. I hope this is one more bidding to sensitize the world on cancer.
Tshepo: Speaking of that, there are men who have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer and people are still reluctant to go for screening for all the other types of this dreadful disease.
What else do you think needs to be done to sensitize people?
Eugene: Men, like women have breast tissues too. But unlike women who have breasts, cancer affects their breast tissue, which makes men as susceptible as women. People need to know the causes of this disease, how to prevent it and how to live healthy lifestyles. Governments should partner with NGOs to sensitize people, even in local communities about Cancer, the effects, causes, and prevention. People should be informed on the signs and symptoms of Cancer, where to seek medical attention and how best to handle the condition.
Tshepo: I can imagine the anxiety that the daughter had to go through, knowing that her mother had Breast Cancer and possibly her late maternal grandmother too, though the story says she died with both her breasts intact. The depressive episodes suffered by the mother while she was sick obviously weighed down on her daughter. How does one deal with being strong for someone who is being affected by Cancer?
Eugene: Nothing is as unnerving as waiting for a death that’s bound to happen. This can be emotionally disturbing, but in the end, you just have to consider that it’s not all about your pain and grief it’s about the patient learning to live with the condition. It’s about saving a soul not crying over one, so I believe you have to be strong enough with your emotions and work towards lifting the patient from his/her ashes. You know, when I saw my aunt, I was speechless, I couldn’t even look at her but she was strong enough to console me, yet that’s what I feel I should have been doing not her. We should learn to live with our pains sometimes and try to not push them on people. Emotions are contagious, we must know, and a smile or frown would definitely reflect on people. It’s a time you must work with the patient to conquer the pain not inflict more agony on him.
Tshepo: So true. Caring for someone sick requires selflessness. I hope that the daughter has found peace and your family as well.
This dialogue was not easy to have but so worth it. Thank you for creating time for me and for your patience. I wish you all the best in the upcoming awards and I hope to read more of your future writings.
Eugene: It was worthwhile. Enjoyed every bit of it. Thanks, Tshepo.
Tshepo Phokoje is a writer from Palapye, Botswana. She writes both Fictional and Creative non-fictional short stories as well as Poetry. Her first fictional short story was published as part of 36 Kisses; an Anthology of Short stories & Poems by Botswana Society of Human Development, which was aimed at promoting commercial tourism. Her poem Battered, Bruised & Abused, is part of Silent No More, a PDF anthology about Gender Based Violence. Her poem “FEAR” has been featured in the May 2018 edition of Writers Space Africa, an international online magazine. In her spare time, she edits her fellow writers’ works. She is an overall lover of Arts and hopes to start her own blog, which will focus on Mental Health, Gender Based Violence, Loss, Motherhood, the ripple effects of unemployment and/or liquidation of mines and Survival stories