Commonwealth Short Story Prize Regional Winner: A Dialogue with Innocent Chizaram Ilo
Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Igbo. Their works interrogate gender, class, and sexuality and have been published across five different continents. They’re a finalist of the Otherwise, Gerald Kraak, Wilbur Smith, and Short Story Day Africa writing prizes. They live in Lagos and spend most of their time talking about books, cats and food.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and Nigeria, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Innocent. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Innocent: Hello Nkateko, thanks so much. Being shortlisted means so many things to me. Particularly, there is a rush of validation when your story is sort of ‘picked’ from a pile of 5000+ other amazing entries. So this is a proud moment for me.
Nkateko: I was just watching this video where you talked about that feeling of validation, of being acknowledged. I especially like the part where you say it is the equivalent of someone saying to you, “You’re doing something right”, because I know that the writing itself can often be a lonely process, and finding out that your work is making an impact is a powerful motivator to keep going. The notions of validation and acknowledgement echoed as I was reading your story, “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood”, because so much of the labour that women and mothers undertake goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, and they are expected to accept this without complaining. However, I found myself conflicted about the idea of motherhood being synonymous with wifehood and even womanhood in the context of Nwakego’s mother. Is her role as a mother truly the root of her frustration? I cannot help but think that perhaps it is wifehood that she is trying to renounce and not motherhood, considering that her main gripe is with her husband. Or is it the underlying implication that as she unburdens herself from her children, she also stops being a wife to the father of those children?
Innocent: Will it be awkward if I say I am as confused as you are? The concepts of motherhood and wifehood intersect so much that one is often used interchangeably for the other in the culture I come from (a culture where husbands are somewhat infantilised to the extent that they too need the mothering of their wives). But they’re not the same thing. I think Nwakego’s mother was generally fed up, and borderline frustrated, with everyone—her husband and children, taking and taking from her and never giving back. Her husband getting married to a second wife was the last straw.
Nkateko: It’s not awkward at all. In the process of interviewing writers, I have learnt that it is necessary to separate a story’s characters from its author because the difficult questions that arise from the reading are often those that the author was grappling with themselves as they were bringing their characters to life, and in sharing the work, they are provoking others to think about those issues and come up with questions too, and perhaps, even solutions.
When I was in Nigeria as a writer-in-residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency, I fell in love with the peacefulness of life in Iseyin, and I wanted to stay forever. I spoke to my friend Tobiloba about this desire and her response was, “Get a Naija man to marry you so you can stay.” We laughed, and just as I was settling into the idea and daydreaming about my life as a wife, she explained to me that I would need to quickly learn how to to cook for my Nigerian man and that I would also have to bear children for him quickly afterwards. I asked if perhaps I could fall pregnant first and then stay because the baby would be a citizen. Tobi said that this would be disgraceful. I left Nigeria when my visa expired, quite begrudgingly of course, and with neither a husband nor a baby on the way, but I sometimes think about what my life would have been like as someone’s wife in Nigeria. It is not a thought I entertain in the context of my country of birth. It’s as if I can only romanticize the ideas of marriage and motherhood when I am far from home, because the foreign fantasy I envision is far from that I have seen motherhood and wifehood to be in reality.
The opening of your story reads like the reverse of a praise poem, with the refrains “read this” and “when a woman renounces motherhood” drawing us into the world of shame that engulfs a woman behaving in a manner that is considered unbecoming of a mother or wife, by societal standards. What was the intention behind this first part? When I read this part, I am reimagining “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood” as a stage play with this opening segment performed as a monologue, setting the scene for what is about to happen in the rest of the story.
Innocent: You’ve seen why I said “Motherhood and wifehood intersect in the culture I come from.” Like Tobi pointed out, they are complimentary. A mother without a husband and a wife without a child is seen as disgraceful (although not equally) and incomplete. On a side note, you are going to find that Nigerian Prince Charming and live happily ever after in Iseyin, someday, because Nigerian men are everywhere and the world can never run out of them.
I didn’t actively think of an intention while writing the first part. Igbo storytelling is often accompanied with rich songs that set the story in motion or intensify a climax or plot twist. My father taught us so many of these songs while telling us stories so I was trying to replicate that. I felt the urgency of the call-response verses is what a story like “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood” needs. Also, Carmen Maria Machado did something similar in “The Husband Stitch”, apportioning different voices to the characters in the story. There is something magical when a writer wills/tricks readers to read a story in different voices. As the story progresses, we see these voices at the beginning take the form of characters or a group of characters.
Now that you’ve said it, I can’t stop thinking about having this story performed on stage.
“The concepts of motherhood and wifehood intersect so much that one is often used interchangeably for the other in the culture I come from (a culture where husbands are somewhat infantilised to the extent that they too need the mothering of their wives). But they’re not the same thing.”
Nkateko: The idea of different voices taking the form of characters reminds me of the first time that I watched Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives adapted for the stage and performed as a one woman show by Maimouna Jallow at the Aké Arts and Book Festival in 2017. To say that I was mesmerized would be an understatement. Jallow’s depiction of the three wives relied on her changing her voice and using different stage props for each character, and her transitions were as seamless as the transition from the first part of “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood” to the scene in Nwakego’s house.
I can almost see the curtain opening after the song/monologue ends to reveal the parlor and the shrill sound of the phone ringing. Your words set each scene so vividly that I can picture Nwakego shoving a pile of papers off her bed to rush to the phone, her eventful commute from Lagos to her parents’ house, the renouncement ritual… In fact, let me stop there because I find that part very intriguing. It is almost like a full-circle moment when Nwakego’s mother is dragged to the centre of the compound to be verbally and physically assaulted and humiliated in the way that is implied by the refrain in the beginning of the story. We see in this penultimate scene the manifestation of society’s cruelty to women and it is very painful to bear witness to it. What inspired the idea of a renouncement ritual, and why is it so violent?
Innocent: In as much as the “renouncement ritual” is fiction and I don’t know of any actual place that practices such a ritual, women have always faced unimaginable violence. At first, I thought the violence would serve as a metaphor for how women who don’t know how to behave are treated in real life. I could remember giving a friend the first draft to read in 2017, and she found the scene where the women stripped Nwakego’s mother and burnt her nipples horrifying. She kept asking, “Ah, but does this happen in real life?” Of course, that made me think, “Am I doing too much? Is this sensationalism? Should I tone it down?” Almost two years later, I would stumble on a The Guardian article about breast ironing in the UK, which is so much similar to the renouncement ritual (albeit with different intent). It made me realize that there is no degree of violence one can make up in fiction that hasn’t happened to women in real life.
Nkateko: “…there is no degree of violence one can make up in fiction that hasn’t happened to women in real life.” You’re absolutely right. When I think about female genital mutilation, breast ironing and other atrocities that women’s bodies have been subjected to, my heart breaks. In my home country, South Africa, over 87 000 cases of gender-based violence were reported during the first week of the nationwide lockdown, which began in late March. Those are just the cases that were reported that week, and represent just a portion of the total number of domestic violence cases that occurred during that time. The actual figures are a lot more terrifying, but we don’t need the official numbers to tell us all of this. We already know that things are out of control, but for some reason society (as well as law enforcement) accepts this as a part of life and we just keep moving. What angers me the most about the renouncement ritual in “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood” is that women are assaulting Nwakego’s mother, women are looking on and saying nothing, a woman has entered her house and been accepted as her husband’s new wife. It’s all so infuriating because nobody is protecting her, defending her. I am glad that she is “free” at the end of the ritual, but it truly is a harrowing process and it stirred a lot of emotions in me as a reader. You say that you showed a friend the first draft in 2017, and I can imagine that the story underwent some changes since then. What informed your revision process from then until you had the story that you submitted for the prize?
Innocent: The four women in the story who performed the renouncement ritual on Nwakego’s mother is my way of showing how some women can also be gatekeepers of patriarchy. We see this everyday in old aunts enabling men, covering up uncles who sexually abuse young girls. It’s so frustrating. But then again, social conditioning plays a huge role in this.
While writing the story “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood”, I toyed with the idea of Nwakego doing something grand like disrupting the ritual and dismantling it forever as a way to show a win. I ended up showing this win in Nwakego and her mother bonding after the ritual. Even now that the story is out in the world, I still wonder if I made the right decision.
Yes, so many things have changed about the story since 2017. I have sent it out to other friends to read, particularly Keletso Mopai and Temidayo Ariyo who pointed out what works and what doesn’t in the story and gassed me up so much about the story. I’ve changed the POV several times. The initial title has “denounces” instead of “renounces.” It has been mostly me writing, rewriting, reading it aloud since then. I also nearly gave up on the story, it raked up so many rejections from magazines and contests which was so crushing for me. I’m glad it finally got this recognition.
Nkateko: I have now been imagining Nwakego interrupting the ritual and I do not agree that this would have been a win. The crowd that arrived for this ritual and stood by silently as Nwakego’s mother was publicly humiliated included close family and relatives, so I have no doubt that Nwakego would have been shamed for attempting to derail the proceedings. In fact, I believe that the onlookers would have been stirred to action had they been denied the opportunity to see Nwakego’s mother stripped and assaulted as planned. It would have implied that Nwakego was a disgraceful daughter, no wonder her own mother was renouncing motherhood! The part where Nwakego’s mother says “Lagos or no Lagos, you are the world I want to see” is truly heartwarming. The ending definitely felt like a win because Nwakego’s mother could finally leave and not have to bear the pain of seeing her husband with another woman. As for the onlookers, I am still upset about the things they said to Nwakego’s mother, but I suppose that letting people believe what they want about you is the price you pay for living your truth.
“When A Woman Renounces Motherhood” is a truly powerful story and I am glad that you did not give up on it, despite the crushing rejections in the past.
Innocent: So I made the right decision with the plot? I don’t even want you to answer, at this point I’m taking this as a win. When I wrote the line “Lagos or no Lagos, you are the world I want to see”, I was echoing the voices of the women whose stories formed me; my mother, my grandmothers, aunties, cousins, neighbors, friends. These are women who really don’t win in the grand gesture of interrupting the ritual as I willed Nwakego to do. These women find their wins in little things, in personal things, in themselves, they save themselves, and that is so powerful. The onlookers in that story are still present in real life, people who look away, people who are silent, people who enable. The most striking thing about this story is that I didn’t know I was writing about all these things, I didn’t set out to write about all these things. Looking back at the story now, I’ll sometimes ask myself, “When did I think of this? When did I write this?”
Nkateko: In your acknowledgement of the voices of the women whose stories formed you, you are answering those questions you have been pondering as you look back at the story. Not only those women’s voices, but also the voices of the trusted friends who helped you to mold the story into what it is, pointing out where it could be better but letting you know you had created something special. I have heard some writers speak about how a particular story chose them to tell it. Perhaps that is the case with this story? Perhaps you did not choose the story but instead were chosen as a vessel to deliver it? I do not know how these things work. What I do know is that I feel so lucky to have read “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood” and to have had this conversation with you. Congratulations once again on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I wish you all the best and I look forward to reading more of your work in the future. Side note: keep the ankara fabric ready for when I meet the Nigerian Prince Charming you mentioned earlier, an invitation will surely come your way.
Innocent: Thanks so much, Nkateko, I’m really glad you feel this way about “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood”. I enjoyed every bit of this interview. And yes, my ankara is ready and hanging in my wardrobe for the invitation.
Updated on 2 June 2020: Congratulations to Innocent Chizaram Ilo on winning the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (regional winner for Africa)
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest work has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.