Letting the Story Write Itself: A Dialogue with Franklyn Usouwa

LETTING THE STORY WRITE ITSELF

A DIALOGUE WITH FRANKLYN USOUWA

Franklyn Usouwa is a Nigerian of the Igbo ethnic group who was born and raised in Lagos. He is presently studying for an undergraduate degree in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Lagos. 

He is greatly interested in storytelling in all its possible forms but has a particularly soft spot for short stories. His short stories have been published in The Kalahari Review and Writer’s Space Africa.

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation took place between Lagos and Kampala via email.

Franklyn’s story, “A for Abortion,” is about a pregnant teenager forced to have an abortion by the abuser she believes she’s in love with; he talks about how if it wasn’t for his sister he might not have beat the deadline, why he loves writing in shorter forms, the power of choice, and the importance of no holds barred explorations of humanity.

Davina: While talking about why you submitted A for Abortion, you say you have for a long time been astounded by the quality of writing featured; and that you’re inspired by the humaneness and grounded-ness of the stories. 

You also say you wanted to know if you could write something good enough to be featured on a shortlist. I chuckled when you said that; I thought, “Anha! Finally! I have a partner-in-crime!” Because this is how I started submitting to prizes, too; I was curious to see how my writing would fare away from the affectionate and understanding eyes of readers and writers in the reading clubs and writing groups to which I belonged. 

Which people have helped you along your journey onto this shortlist? 

Franklyn: My biggest supporter has to be my elder sister, Queen. She has a lot of unearned faith in me. I tend to procrastinate a lot. I actually submitted three minutes to the deadline because I experienced a month long block after writing just a third of A for Abortion. Through all of that, she was very supportive trying to help me start writing again in time to submit. 

I kept telling her just how unlikely it is to get shortlisted for the prize and she just kept urging me to complete the story and submit. I am also part of a little writer’s group of student’s in my faculty. Sometimes we have challenges. A theme is given and there is a deadline to write something on it. It makes for good practice. A story I wrote for one of the challenges got published in an online magazine.

Davina: Themed-writing challenges. I like that! I’m going to piggyback on what Echezonachukwu Nduka said of his experience of reading a literary journal that featured short interviews with writers:

One of the questions was about engaging in rituals to stimulate their creativity, to which they gave distinctive responses. There is a presupposition that writing is a post-ritual act, or ritual in itself. 

And ask if there are any rituals in which you engage to stimulate your creativity.

Franklyn: I pray. You see, usually I’ll get a story idea at some random time. If I have a pen and paper nearby, I’ll make a note with that or with my phone or laptop if possible. A last resort is to make a mental note for later but I tend to forget those so I don’t like doing that. Sometime later, which can be a matter of hours or months, I’ll read the notes and try to write the story. 

Before I begin, I’ll pray. I like to think one of the definitive characteristics of God is creativity and that that’s what is meant by “created in his image.” I believe humans are created with a capacity to create themselves. So, when I’m about to write, I try to look to that for inspiration by praying.

Davina: A truly distinctive response, that one. Now, post-ritual, let’s move on to why you have a soft spot for short stories; what is it about this form of story-telling that appeals to you, Franklyn?

Franklyn: I think I like short stories because I have a short attention span. A short story dispenses with all the excess descriptions found in longer prose, leaving the story in its distilled and purest form. There is no waste. It tells you what happened and just that. Also, it often leaves more to the imagination of the reader. 

For instance, I do not describe what the day to day life of the heroine in A for Abortion is like, but if you live in Africa where having live-in house-helps is commonplace, you probably have an idea what that is like. So you’ll fill in the blanks yourself and I believe that makes the story more personal for the reader. For these reasons I love reading short stories, and I write what I want to read, so most of my work is of a shorter format.

Davina: You referred to yourself as a writer that’s just beginning to find his voice and style, and that stories are important because they are not only a way to start conversations about overlooked topics but also to entertain people. Let’s discuss the business of finding your voice and style, which was initially very difficult for me because I started out wanting to please everyone. 

You won’t believe how long it took me to realize that I could never write a story that EVERYONE liked. It seems obvious to me, now, of course, yet it took quite a while for me to strike a balance between my eagerness to entertain and my need to focus on subjects that are important to me in a way that feels comfortable and intuitive.

Franklyn: I am a big fan of action thrillers and superhero fiction. As I have said before, I write what I want to read, so naturally I gravitated towards writing in those genres. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still write stories in those genres, even if it’s only so that I can read them. But, they just never felt satisfying. I think it is because they just were not saying anything or at least not saying enough about things that do bother me. The little issues about our societies that I think about while waiting to fall asleep. So, recently I have been trying to write stories exploring those issues. 

However, I am very much aware that the reason I love action and superhero fiction so much is because they are usually very entertaining and I believe that is really important in storytelling. An example I like to give is the play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead by Athol Fugard. It was my first exposure to the terrible apartheid era of South Africa but it was also terribly funny. To see such a serious issue handled with humour was inspiring. I believe we must not get so carried away trying to explore societal issues that we forget to entertain. 

By finding my voice, I mean identifying the things I want to talk about and by style, I’m referring to the technical means of telling stories. I am talking about narrative techniques, choices of perspective and tense. In both regards, I am still experimenting and A for Abortion being shortlisted has me feeling I am heading in the right direction.

Davina: Coincidentally, I also started out reading my friends’ spy-thrillers (Robert Ludlum was my favourite) and my brothers’ Marvel and DC comics. Who were your favourite authors at that stage in your reading career?

Yes, indeed, appearing on a shortlist is evidence that you’re doing something right. And I’m in full agreement about not getting so carried away, while exploring serious issues, that we forget to humour our readers. Were there any pointers you got from Sizwe Banzi Is Dead about how to (or not to) handle serious issues with a touch of humour?

The best way I can describe my writing style is to say that I let the story write itself. I usually come up with a premise, start writing and just see where it goes. So, when I first started writing the story, I did not know how it was going to end. I certainly did not think it was going to end the way it did. 

Franklyn: Well, I have never been good at picking favourites. I did read the first Jason Bourne book which I really liked but mostly I read anything that had Tom Clancy’s name on it.

If there is anything I have learned, it is that I am not funny, at least not intentionally. If any part of A for Abortion is humorous, it is purely accidental. I do want to know if you found any part of it humorous?

Anyway, I do believe humour is only one way of entertaining the reader. Another way to go about it is using suspenseful storytelling which is what I try to do in my own writing. I think the most important thing is to avoid beating the reader over the head with your own views and politics but rather try to keep their attention by entertaining them in whatever way you find comfortable long enough for you to show them as many sides of the issue as you can, as honestly as you can.

Davina: I was mostly sad while I was reading A for Abortion. What I asked, earlier, about humour, was in reference to what you said about how Fugard inspired you. I was asking if you’d attempted his approach in other stories, and whether or not you felt that you’d succeeded. 

Franklyn: Great to hear that you were sad. It means my work is done. I have actually attempted to copy Fugard’s approach, especially just after reading the play for the first time. I failed miserably. Humour is one of my limitations as a storyteller. Perhaps as I grow in the craft, I’ll get better at it, hopefully to the point where I feel confident enough to employ it in my writing.

Now, I find myself wondering just how different a story I would have written if I could tell a story with the serious themes of A for Abortion with humour and if it would have been a superior piece. What do you think?

Davina: Hmmmn. Let’s see. Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of humour you like. The kind of humour that I like relies heavily on sarcasm. So, if I had written the story I’d most probably have settled for a first-person omniscient point of view. Maybe a goddess-like narrator who takes pleasure in mocking the behaviour and motivations of the characters. 

Franklyn: That sounds very interesting. Such a narrator would have a lot to chew on given the questionable morals of the characters in the story. I would love to read that.

Davina: A lot or a little to chew on, depending on how cynical or world-weary she is. But let’s return to A for Abortion in its current form.

The story opens with the narrator walking in when Nne is asking Madu (the narrator’s married lover) where his woman is. As soon as Nne, who is famous for her skill in terminating unwanted pregnancies, sees the narrator, she gets angry; she insists that the narrator is no woman.

Different societies in different times and spaces adopt different, and sometimes contradictory, milestones for womanhood. In some societies, a girl is considered a woman as soon as she starts menstruating—regardless of whether this starts at, say, 9. Might this be a conversation your story attempts to broach?

Franklyn: Yes, you are correct. I do not give an actual age to the narrator. As such, the reader may assign an age to her which will be based on their own views on womanhood. 

We say the girl “is no woman” today, and suddenly claim she is tomorrow because there has been a change in her body or she has reached some arbitrary age. There is a conversation to be had here not just about womanhood but adulthood in general.

Davina: Another character in the story whose age isn’t revealed is Ruth. All we know is that she’s Nne’s eldest. The description of Ruth is unusually watchful: tall, with a large face and features, and fair in a sickly way – Ruth reminds the narrator of a gecko.

Ruth starts to sing a nursery rhyme, which contains fully-grown words like fetus, gamete, hymen, and zygote, shortly after Nne slides a cold metal into the narrator. Reading that part of the story was surreal — Ruth’s ABCs juxtaposed against a) the narrator’s slow realization that she wants to keep the baby, and b) Madu, Nne’s and Mary’s mounting panic when blood begins to flow freely from between the narrator’s legs — the whole thing was almost dream-like.

You spoke earlier about narrative techniques. The way you use the strangeness of that nursery rhyme – it seems that you’ve practiced this technique; it struck me as something with which you’re very familiar. 

Franklyn: I cannot begin to tell you how happy it makes me that you noticed that. You are probably familiar with the feeling as a writer when something you are going for actually comes off and is noticed by a reader. 

You are right, it is something I have attempted and practiced in previous writings. It is my attempt to explore something I have felt before – usually in stressful situations like accidents. 

It has a dream-like nature to it – a sense of lacking control. The sequence of events in A for Abortion that you are referring to is the closest I have come to portraying the feeling with words. It is something I set out to do and it is very satisfying to see that you noticed.

Davina: Ah, goodness, me! Now I feel incredibly clever! 

You mentioned earlier that there’s a conversation to be had here not just about womanhood but adulthood, too. What kind of conversations, about adulthood, did you intend to explore? 

Life in the story seems to revolve around Nne. Respectable women abuse her; prostitutes from Obi junction visit her; apparently, every married man has brought a mistress to her; and unmarried young adults often seek her out. 

I have to ask: is there anything the adults in this local government get up to that won’t eventually require Nne’s intervention, Franklyn? The housewives that go for confession at Saint John’s seem unlikely to need her help but, still, I have to ask. 

Franklyn: The conversation I was referring to is about choice and power and at what point in a person’s life they may be allowed to start making choices for themselves and have power over their affairs especially their own bodies. Also of interest is who is allowed to make those choices and have that power before the person is considered an adult. 

I think adults have a lot of power over those not considered adults, especially in domestic situations and being a young adult, I find myself suddenly having a lot of control which I did not have not too long ago. I do not think a lot has changed about me apart from my age, so who’s to say I should not have been considered an adult and given such control a lot earlier in my life? 

The narrator in A for Abortion is really just fighting for control. Perhaps that is why she has convinced herself she is in love with Madu, as a way of giving herself a sense of control. One doubts just how much of a choice she had in their first sexual encounter. Would he still have had his way if she was unwilling? 

Either way, is she even considered old enough to make that choice. Statutory rape laws would suggest she is not. She’s trying to have some sort of agency in a situation she has no control over by choosing to have a baby. However, he tries to snatch away that choice from her as well by forcing her to have an abortion.

Perhaps there is another story to be told, one about Nne. Nne is the Igbo word for mother. I thought it would be a funny name to give to a woman who does what she does. She is a very interesting character. The novel, The Last Duty, by Isidore Okpewho inspired me with its exploration of sex and sexuality in a rural African setting where such things are often addressed through denial or demonization.

Someone like Nne is interesting because she knows everyone’s secrets. They can criticize her and demonize her work but eventually they all come to her. In many ways, she makes their lives a lot less complicated. How many of the “respectable women” who criticize her would be sharing their homes with their husbands’ mistresses if not for Nne? How many would be supporting both their teenage children and the grandchildren they would have borne out of wedlock? 

These women and their homes are kept respectable because Nne does such disreputable work. Perhaps these are the justifications that keep her will so strong and allow her to walk with her head held high despite their constant hostility. They need her even if they are in denial about it.

About the housewives, while unlikely, I do see possibilities where they would need Nne’s services. One could have found comfort in the arms of another man while her husband is away working in the city. Another may come to Nne because another child would be one more than she and her husband can afford. 

I wonder if the narrator’s aunt found out about the pregnancy, would she have abandoned her marriage because of a “husband snatcher” or would she have dragged the narrator to Nne’s place herself? These housewives must have something to confess when they go to Saint John’s, right?

Davina: Right!

Franklyn: I find it all very interesting and feel we should be talking about these things more often and more honestly. What better way than through stories?

Davina: Another angle regarding your thoughts about choice is the “free will” one. I’m reminded of a discussion I had with friends about “freedom of action,” the psychology (or lack thereof) behind what we do or don’t do. Do fully autonomous, self-directed agents exist in real life? That sort of thing. 

I’m thinking of this in relation to the way A for Abortion ends; was it fated to end with the narrator and all her imagined children disappearing into the bulb’s bright glow? 

Franklyn: As a Christian, I believe in freewill. Without freewill the concepts of sin and guilt completely fall apart. So, I have to believe that our choices matter.

The best way I can describe my writing style is to say that I let the story write itself. I usually come up with a premise, start writing and just see where it goes. So, when I first started writing the story, I did not know how it was going to end. I certainly did not think it was going to end the way it did. 

While researching for the story, I learned a lot about abortions that I did not know before. It is actually a very safe procedure when done right. So, I did not see how a seasoned hand like Nne could botch it. 

But as I wrote, the narrator developed and I learned more about her. I began to understand that she was fighting. In her head, she was fighting for some control and her defiance was going to manifest in a climatic act of physical resistance. I like to think it was the lesser tragedy. If she had let them take her children from her and gone back with Madu to continue their secret affair, she would have truly died on the inside.

Davina: What you said about using stories to talk more often and more honestly; that idea (how we can’t do certain aspects of real life properly without doing fiction properly) is, according to this attempt to make “a scientific case” for literature, an odd one:

You do something strange every day. You consume fictions. It’s such an omnipresent habit, shared by all, that we rarely consider the oddity of it. I’m a fiction writer myself, but I’m also a neuroscientist, so this activity fascinates me. What’s the cognitive utility of learning things that aren’t true? 

I had to pause and think: what, indeed is the cognitive utility of learning things that aren’t true?! Speaking strictly for myself, I’d say I’ve learned to empathize more. What about you? 

And are there moments when you’ve attempted to make a scientific case for literature? I’d be very interested in a chemical engineering case for literature if you have one. 

Franklyn: You can speak for both of us because I certainly agree with you. I believe I have also learned empathy through fiction.

Speaking about making a case for literature, I have never actually given it any thought before now. But I think when reading or hearing stories, the mind craves a certain structure which nonfiction does not always possess. Life is full of randomness and if nonfiction is written or told with strict honesty, it would read or sound like a purposeless collection of random events. 

Another point to make in favour of fiction is about empathy which you mentioned. It would be very presumptuous to narrate non-fiction in first person like I have done in A for Abortion unless I was narrating something I had actually experienced. If it was a nonfiction piece, it may have read like a news report which would be impersonal and lack empathy. I believe fiction has a greater ability of allowing no holds-barred explorations of humanity.

Maybe not a chemical engineering case for literature, but that’s my take on it.

Davina: I’ll close with what you said about The Last Duty – how it inspired you with its exploration of sex and sexuality, both of which are often addressed through either denial or demonization – in a rural African setting. 

Aziz Olamide spoke of how the people, on whose bodies he paints, receive “positive energies from the art”: 

A girl said she felt celestial afterward. Another told me it made her feel a kind of peace she had not counted upon.

What if we could actually paint stories onto bodies so that, perhaps, when the clothes come off, the first thing we are required to do is look at the drawing or read the poem (or short story) on our and other people’s bodies? The kinds of drawings and stories that’ll create more positive energy, less shame and fear, around explorations of sex and sexuality.

Franklyn: That would be beautiful. It sounds like an awesome idea. I think it’s a shame how something as natural as sex has come to be treated with such negativity. I believe positive storytelling, or at the very least, truthful storytelling would help to change that and bring about the positive energy you mentioned. I really hope we can get to a time when we are completely open about these things. It cannot come soon enough.

Davina: We look forward to more truthful storytelling from you, Franklyn! Thanks for talking to Africa in Dialogue about your story. I’m sending you loads of good vibes ahead of the regional winner announcements. 

Davina Philomena Kawuma

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 and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her. 

She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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