Franklyn Usouwa is a Nigerian storyteller 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. Franklyn was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and his short stories have been published in Kalahari Review and Writer’s Space Africa.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This interview was conducted via Google documents between Lagos and Abuja.
Aisha: Hello, Franklyn. Welcome to another interview with us.
Franklyn: Thank you, Aisha. I am pleased to be doing this again. The interview with Africa in Dialogue was one of my favourite parts of being shortlisted last year because I enjoy any opportunity to discuss storytelling as much as I enjoy telling stories.
Aisha: That’s wonderful! It’s great to have you here again, Franklyn and congratulations on being shortlisted a second time! Do you think you could win the prize this time?
Franklyn: Winning the prize would be great, but even getting shortlisted out of almost 7000 entries is already a victory for me. To have your story listed and discussed in the same space as all the other great stories that got shortlisted is an honour; it is validating and satisfying. However, I do hope I win. Fingers crossed.
Aisha: It is indeed an honour; fingers crossed. Let’s talk witches now. Why did you pick this particular theme? Was ‘Lifestyle Guide for The Discerning Witch’ inspired by anything in your life?
Franklyn: I was inspired by the article ‘All the Witches They Could Not Burn’ by Jessie Kindig in the Boston Review. I found comparing women who defy oppressive societal norms to witches exciting and wanted to explore it.
Aisha: I can see that the article’s theme is reflected in your piece. Especially when the narrator somehow accepts the title “witch” with joy. What other bits of this article can we find in the story?
Franklyn: Parts of the article discuss how the label of “witch” has historically been thrown at any woman who in one way or the other defies the accepted model of what a woman should be in society. It is used to shame them into conformity or, in more extreme settings, as an excuse to persecute them. Reading that, I found it interesting how cross-cultural it is as a phenomenon. In the domestic African environment I am familiar with and where I set the story, the term “witch” is used in the same way it has been used throughout history across many different cultures. Also, it is directed towards the same types of women for the same misogynistic reasons. Equally noteworthy is the phenomenon of derogatory terms being adopted by the groups they were once used to oppress such as is the case with certain racial slurs. So, the image of the witch comes to signify resistance in the face of misogynistic societies and becomes essentially a badge of honour for those offering that resistance. You see that in the story where the heroine comes to accept the title with joy, as you said.
Aisha: You are right. Witch is a title used a lot in Nigeria and especially by women. Another phenomenon that appeared in the story that is common in Nigerian society is the one where a woman is treated terribly by her in-laws because she cannot have children. Why do you think the narrator’s father let this happen to her mother?
Franklyn: I think he let it happen because society, in the same ways it seeks to control women, also controls men. Whether he knew it or not, if he ever stood up for his wife and daughter, he ran the risk of being accused of being “less than a man”. In the same way as with women, men are shamed into compliance by the use of derogatory labels that question their manhood. He let it happen for the same reasons his wife dutifully played hostess to her antagonistic inlaws. It’s because it feels much easier to conform to the traditions of our communities for better or worse than it is to risk being ostracised. It is a matter of self-preservation, fear and one might even call it “cowardice”.
Aisha: I noticed that he acted as if his family held him back with his masculinity. It is quite common for barrenness to be associated with black magic in Nigerian culture and I would like to discuss this theme as explored in your story. Where did you get the idea for the inlaws’ wild concoctions? Were you inspired by something you learned before?
“Writing the story allowed me to explore my empathy—something I try to do in all my writing. I try to have as little of myself as possible in my stories and characters; I aim for them to be their own people, to live and breathe on their own terms.“
Franklyn: I think the association of barrenness with witchcraft exposes the deceitfulness of such societies as it regards gender roles and conformity to those roles and certain values. You have systems that tell girls what they need to be from an early age—teaching and moulding them into this image of mother and wife. In the story, the heroine’s mother represents a woman who has agreed to fit this mould. However, by no fault of her own, she does not bear a male child in this patriarchal society that places a premium on male children. How do you then tell this woman who has played by all your rules and done everything you instructed her to do that she is now to be discarded so her husband can have male children with other women? How do you tell her that her perfect obedience does not matter and that the system dictates that she has failed and demands that she be abandoned over something which she has no power to control? You don’t. You can’t. It has to be her fault. She has to be a witch. Her lack of male children has to have been a conscious effort on her part. So the in-laws’ wild concoctions are born as an attempt at guiltlessly discarding such a woman.
Aisha: I noticed that the second wife taken by the narrator’s father wasn’t treated this way. What was different with the second wife?
Franklyn: I think one could tell the story from the perspective of any character and it would make for an interesting read. I believe the second wife is a prime example of that. One of the core themes I tried to capture with the story is that nobody wins with gender roles and associated biases. One can argue that women lose more, but even then, nobody wins. I think this is made obvious when considering the perspective of the second wife. She’s a young woman who gets pregnant by a married man. An arrangement is reached between her family and his that she be his second wife. Though it is not explicitly stated, it is obvious that this arrangement hinges on her having a male child. From the onset, she’s aware that her value depends on something she cannot control. She faces hostility from his first wife and daughter. She experiences a stillbirth as well as multiple miscarriages. Eventually, she has daughters, and like the first wife, she is expected to accept her husband being unfaithful to her. When she refuses to accept this, her children are labelled bastards and are along with her sent out of their father’s home. Eventually, she is also accused of witchcraft. She was not different. She was used and discarded like the first wife. Do you agree with me about nobody winning?
Aisha: Definitely! I don’t think anyone won; even the heroine was scared by those events from her childhood. It changed her idea about men and the world forever. The second wife was still a victim of what brought her into the home in the first place. I would like us to talk about how you wrote the story. Especially from different perspectives. How did you find the voices of these characters?
Franklyn: I wrote the story using second-person narration. This was inspired by the short story ‘How To Marry an African President’ by Erica Sugo Anyadike, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. After reading it, I had to experiment with that style of narration myself. It is a very interesting way of telling stories because it forces empathy. In ‘How To Marry an African President’ the second-person narrative humanises a character that may otherwise seem unlikeable or unrelatable if any other narrative style was employed. It does not exactly make you like her, but you understand her because you are her for the period you read the story. That’s what I was trying to recreate with my story. I hope that reading the story allows people who wouldn’t ordinarily relate to the main character and her experiences to spend some time in her shoes. Hopefully, they come away with new perspectives on the story’s themes and greater abilities to empathise with those in their lives who have had similar experiences as the main character.
Aisha: I read the story, and the narration style is brilliant. For the time I read the story, I became the character. Was there any difficulty with this? Seeing as you don’t have anything in common with the character, or do you?
Franklyn: I would describe the writing process as interesting rather than difficult. Writing the story allowed me to explore my empathy—something I try to do in all my writing. I try to have as little of myself as possible in my stories and characters; I aim for them to be their own people, to live and breathe on their own terms. By the time I completed the story, I had gained a new perspective and understanding of gender issues and I hope the story has the same effect on readers as it had on me as a writer.
Aisha: That is the beauty of writing. Although I am also wondering, while you wrote, did you find that you were already familiar with some things?
Franklyn: Well, being Nigerian and Igbo, I am very familiar with the themes of the story. Gender roles, their associated biases and enforcement within communities are virtually inescapable in our society.
Aisha: Did you draw any inspiration from Igbo culture to write about the mystic beliefs in the story?
Franklyn: I did not draw inspiration from any culture in particular. With how universal the image of the witch is, I did not need to. Also, an aspect I tried to explore with the story is the fluidity of the witch image when it is projected on nonconforming women. For such purposes, the witch’s nature, characteristics and capabilities are anything the accusers need them to be. As the story developed, so did the mythos spouted by the heroine’s paternal relatives to suit their aims.
Aisha: Yes, I realised there wasn’t any specific reference to how the witch operated. Let’s talk about the main character and her life later on. I noticed that because of her experiences growing up, she seemed driven by the fear of not wanting to end up like her mother. Would you say that this is a common problem?
Franklyn: I don’t know if I’d call it a problem. I believe we learn what to do and what not to do by observing our parental figures. As a result, we may try to do certain things differently than they did so we don’t find ourselves repeating what we consider “their mistakes.” Sometimes we take it to extremes, and that’s when it becomes a problem. In the heroine’s case, this extreme would perhaps have been becoming a misandrist. Still, the possibility exists that she could eventually work through her resentments toward her mother while she worked to avoid making the same mistakes.
Aisha: Funny enough, her becoming a misandrist didn’t occur to me, but I see how that could happen. For me, another prominent theme of the story is women being strong and persevering through adversity. Most of the time, this is a problematic narrative. When writing the story, did you worry about how readers would receive this theme— whether in a positive or negative way?
Franklyn: I think the narrative of women being strong and persevering can only be positive. However, I am aware that not everyone sees it that way, which is why it was important to me to write the story the way I did. I hope readers who may have misunderstood the character or misunderstand people like her in their lives will get the chance to see her perspective and understand. I hope they see how unfair life is to the main character and the other women in the story. If they do, they’ll see that her resistance and perseverance are positive.
Aisha: For me, I think it is easy to see the good parts. However, I still could not shake off the feeling that because of this, the main character could easily internalise the belief that it was okay for women to accept and endure the maltreatment she watched her mother go through. Luckily, she didn’t turn out like that. What else would you want readers to take away from your story?
Franklyn: I tried to make the story’s ending mirror the beginning as a way of showing how gender biases are perpetuated in a cycle. Also, the heroine’s mother most likely had a childhood similar to her daughter’s, but they both reacted to the misogyny of their society in different ways. The mother with resigned acceptance, and the daughter with stubborn resistance. I think that shows that internalisation and acceptance of misogyny are always a possibility, as you mentioned, and unfortunately, some women, like the heroine’s mother, do take that route. As a takeaway from the story, I would like to go back to the point about nobody winning. The sufferings of the women are obviously in the foreground, but I think the issue is made clearer if we also give some attention to the perspective of the heroine’s father. This is a system that, at the surface level, appears to favour men. Still, this man, despite doing everything that was asked of him by his society, ends up alone in his old age, estranged from both his relatives whose counsel he followed and all the women in his life. If nobody wins in this system, why do we continue to perpetuate the cycle? That’s one of the questions I’m hoping readers take away from the story.
Aisha: I hope readers get to ask these questions when they read your story. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Franklyn.
Franklyn: It was a pleasure speaking with you, Aisha.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tealee A. Brown.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a Law student, poet and freelance writer and journalist from Kaduna State, Nigeria. Her poems, essays and curated interviews have been published in Document Women, Africa in Dialogue, Agbowó, Muslim Girl, Aster Lit and others. In 2019 she won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. In 2020, she was one of the judges for the same award. When she isn’t studying and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats, watering plants, reading about Sufism and working to spread mental health awareness as Head of Administration at the FAM Initiative. Aisha currently writes for Document Women’s Arewa Voices column. She hosts two podcasts, namely the Poet Box Series and Story ER.