Achieving Representation Through Original Stories: A Dialogue with Somto O. Ihezue
Somto Ihezue Onyedikachi is an Igbo writer, filmmaker–in–training, and wildlife enthusiast. A Nommo Award-nominated writer and winner of the African Youth Network Movement Fiction Contest, his works have appeared or are forthcoming in Omenana Magazine, Tor’s Africa Risen Anthology, The 2021 Year’s Best Anthology of African Speculative Fiction: Vol 1, The Bridging World’s Anthology, and 20.35 Africa. His works have been shortlisted for the 2021 Ibua Journal Continental Call and the Akuko Magazine Inaugural Issue.
BY NATALIE SIFUMA
This conversation took place on a blue velvet chaise lounge somewhere in Nairobi’s Loresho Estate, and in a grey house sitting on a hill, overlooking the Niger River in Ontisha, via email.
Natalie: Once in a while, I think about the future (A.I) version of Africa. The visuals that come to mind are a collection of thoughts from reading books like Rosewater by Tade Thompson, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, and short stories like yours: Where You Go. As a writer, how do you imagine and thereafter put into words stories that surmise a future version of the continent, or the world?
Somto: I grew up in a home where vibrant imaginations were welcomed. Imaginations that drew inspiration from books and kid shows, from the Harry Potter collection to Disney classics. Imaginations that took form as crayon drawings at the back of my school notebooks. In those pages, I painted people that lived in distant places and dreams. But those drawings felt like they weren’t mine to keep. The faces had blue eyes, lived in cottages, and ate cheese. When I first read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, coming across the character Mwita, I saw bits of myself staring back at me. This never happened with the fairytales, the robed wizards and blond princes. For the first time, I found stories I could keep. From the short fiction collected in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky to the award-winning Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, my imaginations were starting to wear the colours of my face and the kink in my hair.
There’s more: Reading has always been an escape for me. Diving headfirst and fast into new, strange places, walking in another’s shoes, speaking in their voice, in languages unheard. With reading came the writing, the discovery that I could carve worlds, be one and ten thousand, infinite. So I wrote places where I could be afraid, be brave, untethered, and powerful beyond measure. No one told me that I was, or could be these things, so I told myself. I claimed myself (Forgive me, I have a penchant for the dramatics).
Also, there’s a community of brilliant, non-conforming artists across the continent. A community of people who are inspirations, existing outside societal boxes and carving out spaces—both in a literal and literary sense—where we can all thrive. In these little safe places, moulded with minds and hands, we dream and write futures that are kind, fierce, and beautiful. In these bright spaces, I found love and defiance. I found home. When I write of the future, I write of home.
Natalie: Our pasts—or more specifically our childhoods, upbringing and home environments–in many ways influence the way we think and even the people we become.
Personally, I read the Nancy Drew mystery stories and a little later was introduced to Harlan Coben (still in the thriller, mystery genre), before eventually finding home: familiarity and comfort, in African literature. In reading your response, I was reminded of Refilwe by Zukiswa Wanner, which is an African retelling of the German fairytale, Rapunzel. Where Rapunzel was white with long, golden hair, Refilwe is a black girl with long, enviable dreadlocks. What I’m getting at with this is that while we now have an assortment of African stories for children and Y.A, some older stories from Europe and America are still popular and can be re-created for young African readers of today and the years to come.
On the subject of reading, I think we can both agree that there is nothing as good as reading a book that makes you forget your problems, your surroundings, and fully immerses you in the characters’ world. What are some of the books that have gotten you hooked since you started reading African literature?
Somto: Before delving into this question, I’d like to comment on a statement I found particularly interesting;
“… some older stories from Europe and America that are still popular can be re-created for young African readers…”
I understand the genuine motive behind retellings, one seeking to foster the visibility of people who aren’t traditionally represented in international media. I read Refilwe as well, it is a beautifully written piece of work. Regardless, I believe the goal of representation can still be achieved with original stories. An example would be the animated musical adventure film, Moana, largely influenced by the indigenous people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia. Also, The Lion King, set in Kenya, is a great original African story – notwithstanding that a majority of the cast were Caucasians. That said, there’s an inexhaustible source of stories here on the African plain. From folklore to traditions, to history, a plethora of knowledge to draw inspiration and material from. Cultural retellings can be great when done brilliantly and respectfully. However, original stories can drive the objective of entertainment while simultaneously encouraging representation.
On to the question about African literature that has gotten me hooked, where to begin…
I found the socio-political aspects of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart particularly intriguing, including the friction between the members of Igbo society—a society I come from—as they confront the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. For the first time, through literature, I was exposed to the grueling effects of colonialism, its predominant role in the repression and near-erasure of a culture. In a way, the novel permitted me to write about my people and culture in a manner that was brave and sympathetic.
A day before my physics West African Secondary School exams, I had been caught reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. It was part of the literature syllabus for art students, and I wasn’t an art student. After the scolding session and threats of impending failure, unfazed, I resumed the novel—Kambili and Jaja weren’t going to read themselves. Unfortunately, I connected to the theme of domestic violence prevalent in the book. Growing up in a Nigerian home violence, and physical abuse were necessary tools adopted in molding a child. I have made peace with the fact that the memories and scars I carry will be with me for a long while. The one thing I gratefully take away from those cruel experiences is my unwavering unsubscription and disbelief in the idea that those experiences made me into the person I am today.
Then there’s The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emechata. A worthy and heart-wrenching read. Through Nnu Ego’s journey, Emecheta forces readers to consider the dilemmas associated with adopting new ideas and practices against the inclination to cleave to tradition.
These works have been mentioned earlier, but it would be a great disservice to not add them to the list. Kintu by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. As a speculative and mythical writer, these works informed and emboldened my craft.
It’s not just books; some short stories are impossibly beautiful: Akwaeke Emezi’s “Who Is Like God”, Remy Ngamije’s “Granddaughter of the Octopus” and “The Giver of Nicknames”, regional winning story for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and a shortlisted entry for the 2021 Caine Prize respectively. Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s “The Children of No 39 Faulks Street”, and Roseline Mgbodichinma’s “Souvenir” both published in Isele Magazine, among others.
And there you have it, my little list of works that will forever stay with me.
“I understand the genuine motive behind retellings, one seeking to foster the visibility of people who aren’t traditionally represented in international media . . . Regardless, I believe the goal of representation can still be achieved with original stories.“
Natalie: From what you have said about creating our own stories, I think of the bigger picture, and that is that we (whether it’s African storytellers, or our educational institutions and sectors) need to be more deliberate in sourcing and thereafter including African stories in the education systems. In doing so, children of today and tomorrow won’t have to think too much about these western narratives, but will have homegrown ones that they can relate to. I am currently working with Paukwa, a Kenyan organisation that is striving to do this by creating animations for kids based on stories of Kenyans with the aim of infusing values such as hard work, kindness, service to others… but also to show that we can have animated characters who look like us.
I appreciate how you have spoken about Chinua Achebe’s work, and what it did for/to you. I have the utmost respect for his mind and his contribution to literature. In how Things Fall Apart influenced you, I am taken back to a conversation I had with a friend recently, where he said that compassion is how we are able to write about people. Then I am reminded of these words by Chilean author Isabel Allende: “Writing is a long process of introspection; it is a voyage towards the darkest caverns of consciousness, a long, slow, meditation.”
As a lover of history and historical fiction, I can tell you that Kintu is one of my favorite books—so feel free to mention it again and again.
Now that we have returned to writing, do you have a process that you follow, or one that works for you? What does the process from the idea of a story to the completion of a first draft look like?
Somto: If there’s a process to this art of ours, it’s one I’m yet to discover. As much as I mark out writing systems, patterns, and cultivate habits in a bid to improve myself, life just gets in the way, halting whatever progress is made. It’s a vicious cycle. So, no, I don’t think I have a process. Certain stories take me months to complete, some take days, while some may never see completion. I like to think I’m still figuring things out, still learning, still understanding what works and what doesn’t. In the last African Writer’s Trust Residency, George Gumikiriza, a past editor of mine, said:
“Among the many lessons, I left with the need to be deliberate with my writing. Stepping out of the bubble of writing only when the muse strikes, but writing even on those days when putting three good sentences together feels a lot harder than jogging up Makerere hill.”
In many ways, his words are ones I resonate with. Regardless of the many obstacles: the mental exhaustion, days I don’t feel like a writer, I borrow time and scribble down words, no matter how few. Perhaps that’s my process.
On the other hand, story ideas are a beautiful thing. They perch in your mind, weaving endless and spectacular scenarios. As a writer, what follows—the task of writing the story—is not all dreamy. The wilder the idea, the more arduous it is to carve into words. Building characters, events, and places around that one singular idea takes a great deal of effort. Sometimes I start a story by writing the end. Other times, the first paragraph does not fit into the story in the long run. That’s the thing about the first draft; it gives you the freedom to be reckless, imperfect, and incomplete. It’s like a window into a world, a guide, a stepping-stone. That in itself has helped form the idea of what a story should be. In stories, those I read and those I write, I do not seek perfection and absoluteness but brilliance, and beauty, in all its many forms.
Natalie: I fully resonate with your mention of perfection and absoluteness in stories you read and write. About two years ago, I enrolled for a novel writing workshop facilitated by Makena Onjerika with the hope of acquiring a better understanding on how to write a novel. I had, up until then (and from time to time still do) toyed with the idea of being/becoming a novelist and I wanted to be ‘perfect’. The interest in—or better yet, the fascination with—having my name on the cover of a physical book was inspired by books that I have read. Books with exquisite prose; books that were captivating, utterly mesmerizing and delightful. I’m talking about books like Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, to name a few. It’s likely no coincidence that these books are all by African women. But I digress. In Makena’s class, I acquired an understanding of beautiful and brilliant sentences; the ‘I wish I thought of that first’ type of sentences. And I remember seeing these aspects in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which was one of the books we briefly examined.
I also learned—and going back to what George Gumikiriza said—about being deliberate with my writing, making it a daily habit. A little after the workshop, I saw the essence in writing a story for myself, and for my mother who will undoubtedly always read my work. I unlearned the desire to be a perfect writer; rather, that I am and can be one who learns from other writers and who improves through reading.
I wonder, are you part of any writing community in your city or hometown? (please also tell me [about] where you live). I don’t want to be presumptuous with your response, but as a follow-up question, would you say having a writing or literary community has in any way helped you?
Somto: I grew up in Onitsha, a widely famous trade hub in Nigeria and home to Ose Main Market, the largest market in West Africa. In Onitsha, everyone runs a business; parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours, everyone. In a way, the same was expected of me. Not necessarily the business aspect itself but more the mindset, the “hustle” culture, an expectation that demanded I align myself with something sustainable, substantial, and practical. Writing did not fit seamlessly into these categories and though my home rewarded creativity, I wasn’t a child anymore; I no longer had the freedom of falling as I now had responsibilities.
For the longest time, I was pretty much on my own with writing. In secondary school, we were grouped into classes based on occupations. You were either a medical doctor, an engineer, an accountant, or a lawyer. There wasn’t room for others, definitely no room for writers. I think about that process all the time, and all the dreams it might have ruined. It was in the “medical” class, while failing at chemistry, that I found my first community. I don’t know if one person counts as a community but with them, I found a shared sense of belonging. I happened to be classmates with Innocent Chizaram Ilo, winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Regional Prize for Africa, and in our shared passion for literature and Scrabble, I found a community. From debating novels to talking about places we wanted to see, people we needed to be, I found a space where I could just… be. Our many discussions, and gossip and laughter, have taken home, forever, in a corner of my being. Eight years later, our little community, transcending time and space, still stands.
Before I got into the university, I remember telling my mother I wanted to study creative writing and she said,
“You are a man, you can’t be a writer, your family would starve.”
I was sixteen, very impressionable, and mother always knew best. So off to the University of Benin I went, to study Biochemistry, and eventually study Medicine (This never happened, and will never happen). It was there that I decided to stop. Sometimes I lie and tell myself it was a subconscious decision. It was not. I did not even feel bad about it, it was presumably for the best. I was going to be a doctor, writing was a distraction, and I needed to be rid of it. And that I did. For three years, I never wrote a thing, not a sentence. Fast forward, and soon came the emptiness, the breakdowns, and lastly, the epic failures. It’s always embarrassing talking about how much I failed at my studies, I had quite the reputation. It was in this sadness that I found Ogbewe Famous Amadin. Famous is an adorable speculative fiction writer whose works have appeared in Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Dark Matter, and others. Adorable, because he looks like a giant teddy bear. Famous reminded me of what writing once meant to me: freedom, beauty, escape. The uniqueness it conferred on me, the ability to draw worlds, to be unbound, to be infinite. I started writing again, started “being” again. And that was not all he gave me, Famous gave me a friend, at a time I was drowning. For that, I will forever be grateful.
Then there’s the serial award-winning author, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald. Donald is a Nebula-nominated writer, a Nommo Award winner, a British Science Fiction Award finalist, British Fantasy Award finalist, Theodore Surgeon finalist and co-editor of both Tordotcom’s Africa Risen and the Dominion Anthology. Donald has been my most testing community yet. When we are not having twitter duels, he’s pushing me to be better, to evacuate my comfort zone, to be more. It gets pretty overwhelming sometimes because his expectations of me, although attainable, are as massive as they are daunting. Donald has been a teacher, a support system, and a friend. Through tough love and his “do or die” approach to situations, he gave my art the spine it needed, opened me up to endless possibilities, and with him, my writing went from being a dream to being alive. From him, I learned that writing could be equally sustainable, practical, and substantial, all those things I thought it could never be.
That’s pretty much it, my not-so-massive community of three. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading groups and writing workshops and spaces. They are great, and have helped build me. But these people, Chizaram, Famous, and Donald, have become so much more to me, and though not the conventional type, my community.
Natalie: You can find home in a person, or multiple people. I’m glad to hear that these three people became and have remained your home.
The “hustle” culture has previously been a common aspect of success in a number of African homes and mindsets. I was fortunate to grow up in a house where art was nurtured by virtue of the fact that my father was an architect and understood the importance of nurturing creativity. There’s something he once said to me, and that was: “You must love what you do, and then the money will follow.”
I’m glad to see the evolution of creative careers and different job titles and roles—beyond the former “successful 5” as I call them. We are part of an era normalising creativity.
Back to your community, do you see a collaborative writing project in future?
Somto: A while back, a Twitter mutual friend asked a similar question; if I was open to collaborating on a book with my friend Amadin Ogbewe, and I jokingly replied, “As what? A power couple? We’re not Beyoncé and Jay-Z, please.”
I guess the idea of it was a tad funny, but I think about it now and, why not? I imagine it would be fun, an adventure of sorts, something utterly different, and I am open to new and exciting experiences. It is definitely something I’d like to see in my future, especially if a connection with the other writer exists both inside and outside the literary scene. To pull off something as daunting as that would require far more than literary prowess but mental compatibility too. It explains why writer couples seem to be good at it. So yes, I would love to collaborate on a writing project. I have always been a fan of togetherness in the literary society, writers supporting one another, facilitating growth in each other, and collaborative work sounds like a brilliant way of fostering such ideals. Though I must confess I have never read a joint piece of work, I am certainly going to add that to my must-do list. Any suggestions? That said, this interview should count as a collaborative writing project, don’t you think?
Natalie: Yes, this is definitely collaborative work. And as we continue to come up with creative ways to work together… Who knows what next?
I’ve loved every minute of this conversation!
Natalie Sifuma is a creative storyteller and communications professional from Kenya. She currently works as a creative lead for a Kenyan organisation that uses storytelling as a tool for social change, and her stories have been published on Debunk.Media, Kalahari Review, Equipoise: The 2020 Anthology of the Nairobi Writing Academy, Nipe Story, and Omenana. She was awarded the 2019 Sondeka Short Story Award for her essay on women, titled “The Ones That Go Unsung.”