Voicing the Fringe: A Dialogue with Ukamaka Olisakwe
Ukamaka Olisakwe grew up in Kano, Nigeria, and now lives in Vermillion, South Dakota.
In 2014, she was named one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40 by the UNESCO World Book Capital for the Africa39 project. In 2016, she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship in Writing from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and was a Resident Fellow at the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. In 2018, she won the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Award for Creative Nonfiction. In 2021, she won the SpringNG Women Authors Prize for her novel, Ogadinma. In 2022, she was named runner-up for the Gerald Kraak Prize.
A finalist for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, her works have appeared in the New York Times, Granta, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, Rattle, Google Arts & Culture, Waxwing, Jalada, Brittle Paper, and more.
Her books include Eyes of a Goddess (2012), Ogadinma (2020), and Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name (2023). She is currently writing a TV series, Agoodjie, for Canal+/StudioCanal.
She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Isele Magazine and The Body Conversation.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Sokoto, Nigeria; Lagos, Nigeria; and Vermillion, South Dakota, USA; via email.
Uchenna: Thank you so much for granting me this interview, Ukamaka. Let’s dive right into it, shall we? I absolutely loved your works that were shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Prize.
Let’s begin with my favorite, “The Grasscutter’s Curse.” I loved how you told this story, and I believe that there couldn’t have been a better way to tell such an important story.
From the opening line to the closing sentence, it is the telling of a single moment branching out to other moments that led to the same moment. I loved how closely knitted the events in the story are, such that concentration on the focus of the story isn’t lost at any point. What this did to me and I’m sure to other readers, was that I was kept on my toes, glued to the story, wanting to know what would happen next and how it would eventually end.
Before we discuss it in detail, can you tell me how “The Grasscutter’s Curse” came to be? What was the writing process?
Ukamaka: The story itself was quite easy to write; the only challenge was the entry point: where do I begin – when she arrives at the hospital or when her water broke? When she felt the first contraction? Do I begin with her anxiety? Her fears for her baby and herself? These are some of the questions that made writing this quite challenging back in 2018, when I wrote that story. I had just begun to embrace my fascination with themes that explore pregnancy, motherhood, postpartum depression, and so I wanted to get this particular story right, which chronicles what goes on in the woman’s mind as she endures labor. I believe I was on the phone with a friend and she mentioned something about seeing the nurse who delivered our babies, and that chat opened the door because I still remember the nurse’s smile, how kind she was to me, and how she comforted and cared and held my hand through my first labour. That face, that warm memory, despite the horror that is childbirth, became the opening for “The Grasscutter’s Curse.”
Uchenna: Your efforts to popularise these themes are commendable, because we do not find them in everyday contemporary African literature. I’m reminded of your response to a question by Prof. Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, in the ISA zoom literary series, The Dialogue. You said the stories you are interested in telling, are those on the fringes that everyone overlooks – pretends to not exist – yet very much do. You bring them to the center and it forms the basis of your writing and I think this is such a noble cause. People need to not just know the truth, but accept it as well.
We live in a society where a new mother will be judged when she complains of how difficult her labour was. They will say she is ungrateful for the child when they’re two different things entirely. I have a niece called Chimmy, such an adorable and cheerful child. One look at her and your worries are gone, one of the best things that has happened to my sister, she says. But my sister had a difficult labour. She lost a lot of blood and at one point she thought she wouldn’t survive it. Should she then pretend this never happened? Or that the days that followed the delivery, she was still in so much pain?
Why do you think people treat such themes like this?
“Stories show us who we are . . . it is important to look into those stories and find that there is no singular way of being a woman.“
Ukamaka: I think the urge to shut down stories like these comes from the fear that it would discourage women from wanting children; it would disrupt gender roles and bring chaos to the heavily-guarded paternal order. And this silencing is not peculiar to my immediate community. A while ago, an American doctor took to Twitter to apologize to women who are living with bodily devastations that come with childbirth, such as uterine prolapse; women who are enraged because no one “told them their vaginas could fall out from having babies.” She continued: “I am so sorry that for so long the patriarchy was scared of what you would do with that information.” That thread sparked a heated exchange on Twitter and what I found interesting was this response from a colleague, a medical doctor too, who wasn’t happy that this topic was brought to the public space: “But other than to increase anxiety and the C/S rate, what would be the purpose of that conversation?” she said, and went on to add, “Do you think women would choose not to have a baby?”
When I published my first personal essay about the mild prolapse I suffered after the birth of my son, a relative reached out to share her displeasure. My experience wasn’t different from those of the women in our community, and she thought that the essay would only cast unkind shade on our people, especially regarding the silence this conversation is often shrouded in and the expectations we heap on the shoulders of our women, who are accorded dignity on the condition that they get married, have children, have sons, and put everyone else’s needs above their own. I had thought that these patriarchal notions were particular until that outrage on Twitter. What it has since done was thicken my resolve, because this is a global problem. We see this in academia, too, with people discouraging writers and scholars like me from focusing on stories about pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum depression, and complications, because, according to a friend, it is “domestic fiction,” – unserious, emotional; it would never compete with intellectual works that explore race and politics – for example.
What I am doing with my stories these days is focusing on these themes that are often relegated to the fringes. Pregnancy and childbirth curve the arc of a woman’s story. I was angry for a long time. My life would have turned out differently if my people openly talked about such things, if I was properly informed. Now, imagine a town full of my story, what that means to the children in it, how it shapes them into adulthood. Pregnancy can change the course of a community’s trajectory.
Uchenna: It’s quite shocking that people who know better would rather stay quiet and let ignorance fly about important issues like this. But at the same time, it is no surprise especially considering the extent our society would go to in conditioning women, and how their knowledge of these issues would arm them with what they (the society) dread most: a woman making a choice for herself. She gets to decide whether or not she is up for it, and if she is, prepares herself for what may be the case. That is why stories like “The Grasscutter’s Curse” are important, they tell the truth.
Another thing I noticed about your story was this annoying way people view a woman’s strength. In every other issue, she is considered less but when it comes to maternity, they begin to pronounce strength on the same woman they called ‘weak’.
In your story, Nneka says to your female lead to “Endure this like a strong woman” referring to her labour pains and when it seemed like the pains overwhelmed her, her sister-in-law, Tina calls her weak. Just like we see in the real world. When people call a woman strong, it is mostly never about her as an individual but her ability to care for others. So, the picture of a strong woman in the mind of the average Nigerian is a pregnant woman cooking in a kitchen, a baby strapped to her back and three toddlers crawling around her. Her entire strength is defined by others.
Could you talk about this?
Ukamaka: You’ve touched on a really great point – the idea that a woman, especially one who is a mother, must be strong. When you look closely at some of the practices we ennoble, you’ll realize that this theme permeates everyday life – from music to movies; this idea of the “strong mother” who suffers for their child(ren), who endures an imperfect husband, who toils under the sun, never resting, thriving despite the obstacles society heaps on her path. The strong woman puts everyone else’s needs before hers, and she smiles while at it, a solid rock that never sways under the weight of these expectations. Her entire life is tethered to suffering and smiling. And what you find in the end, especially for my community, is a lot of our women crumbled under those weights and became bitter, resentful, and sometimes lash out at younger women who resist those burdens. That word, “strong”, is synonymous now with “suffering.”
When I experienced postpartum depression and complications, the people around me told me to be strong, to suck it up. It took seeking out other women in stories by writers like Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa and Chika Unigwe, before I could find the support I needed. It is why I write the kind of stories I write – stories about mothers who are stubborn, nonchalant, mothers who abandoned their marriage and their children, mothers who are selfish, imperfect, kind, wicked, jealous, loyal, religious, philandering; mothers who are simply people dealing with the cards life dealt them, in their own way and on their own terms. Stories show us who we are. And I think it is important to look into those stories and find that there is no singular way of being a woman.
Uchenna: An interesting bit about “Grasscutter’s Curse” was how more than spotlighting a seldom written issue, it also bordered on the supernatural. A month before her labour, your protagonist, upon the insistence of her husband, ate a pregnant grasscutter and belief had it that a pregnant woman who eats a pregnant grasscutter would have a long and difficult labour like a grasscutter. A month later, she is laid on the bed and like the grasscutter, is in pain. I’m curious. Is this superstition actually a thing? Why was it necessary that this be included? Didn’t you fear that people would attribute your protagonist’s labour struggles to the curse, thereby making it less realistic and more spiritual?
Ukamaka: Aren’t superstitions part of our story? I admit I was a little worried about including the grasscutter’s curse and how it would be received – if my readers will, for that reason, dismiss my character’s concerns, her community’s belief, as something fickle, unrealistic. But I am not worried anymore. The thing is what one community dismisses as fantasy is another’s truth. Take the idea of reincarnation: Some western publishers will categorize any text that includes it as speculative fiction, but reincarnation is not speculative, it is not magic, it is our story. We still believe that our people come back to life, and we can’t erase that part of our story to make other people comfortable. Our stories are a summary of who we are, what formed us, where we have come from, and where we are going.
The grasscutter’s curse is still a strongly held belief in many communities in Southeastern Nigeria. And it is why some of us get terribly offended when our stories, often a reflection of communal belief systems, are interrogated through the lens of those who have opposing views – often, Christian, white, Western. Calling our beliefs “unrealistic” means there is a supposed superior system, an authority that determines the standard and decides what is absolute truth, what should be speculative, whose stories should be taken seriously, and who should be subcategorised.
This brings to mind that brilliant letter Martin Scorcese sent to the New York Times in the 90s, after one of their reviewers denigrated Federico Fellini and other foreign language filmmakers. Scorcese called for cultural diversity, questioned the American tradition that “celebrates ignorance” and “close mindedness,” and beautifully summarized what western gatekeepers expect of foreign writers and filmmakers: “Why don’t they tell stories like we do?” “Why don’t they dress as we do?” “Why don’t they think as we do?” “Why don’t they worship as we do?” and so forth. I can’t stop recommending that letter.
Uchenna: It’s such a beautiful letter and thank you for recommending it. On the topic of western gatekeeping, isn’t this what we see, even though quite differently, in Western reception to African music? How in a supposed embrace of diversity, all songs from Africa are roped into afrobeat even those that clearly do not fit in and could be pop, R&B and other genres which are considered mainstream – read as mostly sung by white people? Such dishonest inclusiveness.
Ukamaka: I think that’s why it’s important to have our own music and culture critics writing both critical and evaluative reviews of our music on western platforms. I recently came across Nelson C.J.’s conversation with Asake for the Rolling Stone and it was such a beautiful publication to read. Through C.J.’s works, published in platforms like Billboard, Pitchfork, W Magazine, TIME, Teen Vogue, Dazed, and so many others, he is educating the world on our culture and music, their categories and our musical ancestry. And this is important. For an industry to make inclusiveness a part of its core values, it not only should platform diverse works, it should also employ the services of diverse editors and critics who come from those communities they intend to include. It’s why I thoroughly enjoy working with Molara Wood. She knows the history and traditions that feed my writing, knowledge an average western editor is not privy to.
Uchenna: “For an industry to make inclusiveness a part of its core values, it not only should platform diverse works, it should also employ the services of diverse editors and critics who come from those communities they intend to include.”
This excerpt above answers everything. There are nuances, contexts that must be taken into consideration lest it rubbishes the agenda and makes it pass as a token.
Let’s talk about your poem, “Slut”, such an intriguing title by the way.
I was recently at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival as a guest panelist and got to listen to Mona Eltahawy talk about her brilliant book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. In it, she outlines seven “sins” necessary for women and girls to own up to and require to erupt. Sex is one of these “sins” and these lines from your poem gives us a glimpse into what society views women and sex as:
’Sex: a ceremony for my husband’s orgasm. My hands: tools to stir his eagerness. My body: his to devour.’
‘He would hover above me, face taut, sweaty. How pleasing it is for this giant to quiver above me like an okra branch in the wind. And when he collapsed on my chest, I would hold him. I had fulfilled my purpose. What else was the purpose of a woman?’
My question is, how important is it for a woman to realise that sex should be driven toward her own pleasure first before any other’s?
Ukamaka: It is very important because, often, when we talk about sex in heterosexual relationships, it is always from the lens of the woman satisfying the man. You see this in straight porn: the woman twisting herself into knots, stretching her neck, her body contorted to forms to please the man, and it often ends with the man ejaculating. The whole fucking show begins with his arousal and ends with his ejaculation. And even the idea of a woman pleasing herself is applauded when she does this for him.
What this has done is condition the way we see sex and intimacy — whose pleasure is prioritized? Whose needs come first? Who must contort themselves into shapes and submit to the other? Whose feelings take a backseat? Heterosexual relationships are all about sufferhead; the basic assumption is that the man must be the central piece in the woman’s life, in the society, while she exists around him, because of him. Her entire worth, dignity, joy, mood, etc., are shaped by him. She is reduced to a fixture. And this is why I am writing toward a radical possibility, why I think it is important to imagine a world in which the man isn’t the center. It is what “Slut” set out to do. It begins with the history of the mothers who were sexually and socially repressed, but then something happens to the youngest woman and she realises she can be the centre. The goal isn’t to reject relationships with men, but that everything else can be viewed in relation to her.
Uchenna: Uka, I wish we could go on and on talking about your bodies of work and the noble motivations, but this is supposed to be readable (Laughs). Let’s talk about the other hat you don.
You’re as much an active editor as you are a writer. What effect has juggling these two roles had on your writing? I ask this because I have an idea how much editing makes you over critical. Do you find that altering the naturalness of your first draft? Or is your editing a boost?
Ukamaka: Thank you so much for this question, Uchenna. I think both roles have become inseparable for me; they’ve made me perhaps a bit too self-critical. Take for example a project I am currently working on: I keep returning to certain chapters to tweak their structure, to reassess my language, what my characters are doing, how their actions impact the heart of the novel. Sometimes, I wonder if their decisions are melodramatic. Other times, I say it is not enough, not convincing.
I pushed myself too hard; I judged myself in quite unkind ways. And it wasn’t until last weekend that I decided I would no longer return to those chapters. I had altered the natural flow of emotions in those sections and now, laughably, have decided to return to one of the first iterations of those sections.
Uchenna: OMG! That’s some writerly gymnastics right there (Laughs).
But there must also be perks too, aren’t there? Because I mean, you’re not just writing as a writer, but as a reader, an editor and since in your case, you also publish, a publisher too. That’s all the perspectives covered. So while writing, there is a consciousness to answer to if your reader self would enjoy reading what you’re writing, your editor and publisher self interrogating the writing and its publication strengths. You become an absolute audience of your writing just by yourself. One can even dare say you’re all the audience you need. (Laughs) That must be gold!
It has been lovely conversing with you. Thank you for being generous with your responses, and well done for the important work you do with your writing and the amazing Isele Magazine!
Ukamaka: Thank you so much, Uchenna, for this opportunity to talk about what I love doing and for all the support.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.