Ola W. Halim teaches English Studies and Literature-in-English and writes fiction from Edo State, Nigeria. He was shortlisted for the TFCN Teacher’s Prize for Literature 2019 for his contribution to teaching and literacy. His work has been shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Prize 2022, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021, the Kendeka Prize for African Literature 2022, and nominated for the 2021 Pushcart and AKO Caine Prizes (2021, 2022 and 2023). A 2022 Fellow of the Literary Laddership for Emerging African Authors, Halim tells stories not frequently told.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Lagos, Nigeria and Ugboha, Edo State, Nigeria, via WhatsApp.
Uchenna: You’re on the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize Shortlist, first of all, congratulations on making yet another grand shortlist. What was your first reaction when you learnt that you made the list?
Ola: Thank you so much!
I just stared at the email, lost in wonder, because The Road was a story I did not think I had enough experience and exposure to tell. Seeing it crop up on the Gerald Kraak left me speechless.
Uchenna: Which actually leads me to my next question, The Road manages to engage two important and timely issues in just a few pages. On one part, it is a story about illegal immigration, on the other, it is about queerness. I liked how interwoven you made these issues, that it was as a result of choosing themselves that led to them fleeing. The irony. What informed this story, especially the themes your characters bring to life? What was the writing process like?
Ola: I live in Edo State. You cannot live around here without hearing stories about somebody who is preparing to “take the road”, or someone who has already taken it, or someone stranded and can’t move on because the baba that “did it for him” didn’t “check his cowries” well. Edo has gained this sort of notoriety for illegal migrations to Europe and the Americas.
Although I had always been keen on listening to these stories, even interacting with a few who’d made it back, either big or small, a particular incident made me begin The Road. One evening, a woman came to my mum to see if she could lend her money. Her son, who’d made it to Agadez, had died and she wanted to bring the body back. For days, the boy’s story followed me. What could have killed him? Why exactly was he leaving Nigeria? While he was dying, did he regret dying on the road, or was he fulfilled he’d die outside a country that did not deserve him? Now that they were bringing him back, was his spirit happy? I have heard about cases where a body is being taken to the burial ground and something happens to the vehicle. Here, people would say the spirit does not want to go. Sometimes, some pastor prays and something miraculous happens and the vehicle continues. Sometimes, they have to dream up alternatives. What if the boy’s spirit caused something even more catastrophic on its way back to Nigeria?
I started my research immediately. I binged YouTube with my night sub. Read a lot of stuff. The next morning, and for the rest of the week, I went out to speak to people. By the end of the month, I’d registered with an NGO dedicated to eradicating illegal emigration.
When I started the story proper, I knew the main characters would be gay. That would add more depth and plausibility to their desperation to leave the country, and would also help me bring to reality my long-held wish to write a story about gay people that isn’t necessarily only about their sexuality.
The writing process was pleasant and also excruciating. Although I had all the details I needed, I spent a full month wallowing in self-doubt. Then I attended an online masterclass where someone was talking about telling your own story and allowing others to tell theirs. I’d never been on a truck across the desert to the Mediterranean. Was this my story?
I did not go back to the story until some months had passed. I decided to write it anyway; at least, just have fun with it. The first draft was ready by the end of the month. I was still working on the second when someone sent me a link to the Gerald Kraak Prize. I decided to try and see what comes out of it.
There’s a character with autism in the story. I think that was the moment I was reading and watching a lot of neurology stuff; sometimes I just check things out for the fun of it. I was awed by autism, in particular. To give Eguono’s character some depth even as a passing character, I chose to give it to her. Plus, if she wasn’t autistic, she might not have been able to reproduce Tega so well, and the ending might not have held so much.
Uchenna: Just as in Edo, illegal migration is also quite popular in Northern Nigeria. Sometime in 2019, I offered translation services to a journalist who was carrying out an investigation on the said topic. His case study was Sokoto. I was shocked at the findings he made and the stories he got from those who attempted to cross over but for one reason or the other, pulled out eventually and what he had witnessed while crossing borders. The length at which they went, to ensure they could move left me wondering what could possibly make home so inhabitable that they chose near death if that means they could leave.
I think the first exposure I got to illegal migration, the horrors of it, was Adamu Kyuka’s A Journey of Hell to Heaven, a children and YA novella about a boy from Mali, who joined a carriage migrating to Europe, so he too could live the good life he had always heard of. He sets off for Europe unknown to him the horrors of the desert. On their way, he watches as those who had started the journey with him struggle for their lives and eventually die. He escapes death by a hair’s breadth and when he finally arrives in Europe, he realises that the good life in Europe was only enjoyed by a select few. His kind, no matter their qualification, were relegated to hard labour and unfair wages. He is left broken.
The paragraph about telling queer stories that are not centred on sexuality resonates with me. This is because I think it pushes for normalisation of stories about queer people. There are tons of stories out there with hetero characters whose sexuality is not even remotely discussed. I have said elsewhere that when there are more queer narratives that discuss other issues outside or together with sexuality, it encourages more diversity and pushes back that stereotype that aims to reduce queer people to just their sexuality. What do you think?
“…I was so fixated on one of those things you are often told at writing workshops: write what you know. But somewhere along the road, I stumbled upon a piece by Chimamanda where she said, ‘Don’t write what you don’t know.’“
Ola: Yes, I expect it to have a stronghold in the North also because Sokoto is a gateway of border-crossers. I’ll love to read Kyuka’s novella someday; its irony, the blatant reality of it, is so stark.
I definitely agree with you on the fact that telling stories about queer people centred around other themes pushes for normalisation. Of course, there are lots of stories about straight folks where their sexuality is not an issue, but then, that is because it is a natural assumption that they are straight. Literature about queer people is a relatively new venture; most of it arrives in the 20th century downwards. Most of the world is still plagued by homophobia and transphobia, even in countries we look up to. Most of the literature humanising queerness is still grounded in invisibility, protests, and all of that.
But that doesn’t stop me from reading some fine crime fiction, or horror, or sci-fi, and wondering, what if, at least, one of these characters were queer? Why can’t we have stories about queer people that can also fit into other subgenres? Why has our literature, even when some of it tries to tackle other issues, always gets defined by the term “queer literature”?
But we’re getting there. Many writers are beginning to tell multidimensional stories. The late Anthony Veasna So, for example, explores Cambodian culture and heritage, as well as familial bonds, in his story, “The Shop”. And how else could one have interrogated class beyond what Arinze Ifeakandu does in “The Dreamer’s Litany”? Also, there’s Eloghosa Osunde and her art of weaving the street into her work with such tact and rawness you’d want to coin “ghetto fiction” after reading the collection! I’m watching a film called “Benediction” right now; the way it blends queerness with war and psychology is just brilliant.
Uchenna: It’s indeed something to ponder on. Because what then do you call crime fiction with queer characters? Still queer fiction? Or would you say queer crime fiction? But when it is with hetero and cis characters? Do you say hetero-fiction? Cis fiction?
I think it’s something to do with representing minorities, a double-edged sword. While trying to spotlight, you end up sticking out, and normalcy is lost. I long for a time when we do need to fit all stories featuring queer people into a box. When we embrace and appreciate them individually and not as a piece in a collection.
In your earlier response about the story’s writing process, you made an interesting point about telling a story that isn’t yours to tell, and I would like us to dwell on it a bit.
Recently, there was a necessary outrage that followed the publication of Soro Soke, a book written by Trish Lorenz. Most of the arguments are bothered by the story not being hers to tell and thus making it seem exploitative. Here, you shared that after the masterclass, you began to doubt if The Road was your story to tell. How did you eventually make up your mind? And I would like you to speak further on this issue of telling others’ stories.
Ola: I followed the Trish Lorenz drama, although not as immersively as I’d have loved to. But I understood the main reason for the outrage: that she, in an interview, claimed she had coined the term “soro soke (generation)”, which is as many have said, a spittle on the face of the #EndSARS struggles and their significance. It is reminiscent of the Conrad instance, to which Achebe responded with Things Fall Apart. As some commentators, notably Chika Unigwe, say, perhaps we could use the Lorenz situation to our advantage, tell our own stories, read and promote our own stories, and make bestsellers of our own stories, because no matter how much an outsider has read and/or spoken to insiders about an issue, the outsider can never tell the insider’s story without resorting to sheer subjectivism.
Deciding The Road was my story to tell was a long and difficult thing, especially when I was so fixated on one of those things you are often told at writing workshops: write what you know. But somewhere along the road, I stumbled upon a piece by Chimamanda where she said, “Don’t write what you don’t know.” The brilliance of this meiosis hit me immediately, and I began to consider, perhaps I shouldn’t only write The Road if I didn’t ‘know it’.
I decided I knew the story I wanted to tell. Of course, I haven’t been on the desert, haven’t even left my bedroom down to Sokoto; I have no close relative who had been, neither do I know very closely anyone who had lost their life on the road, nor anyone whose relative had died there (apart from stories occasionally flung to my direction, and me scrutinising every detail to recreate the necessary emotions to really “see” their plights—if this makes sense). But then, I am no stranger to grief, or love (in its most intense and palest), or withheld romantic affections, or being lovelorn, or squashed hope and aspirations, or virtually everything The Road touches on. It was that realisation that made me see that the surface arrangement of events did not matter, nor the physicality of it, but the emotional responses to them; if I could draw from my experiences, be as shamelessly vulnerable and emotionally honest as I could afford, then I could tell this story the best I could. Of course, my main characters are both from two tribes I know very well—Urhobo and Esan—and as I often do, their characters are based on people I know and have interacted with; what was left was for me to put them in a situation and try to imagine how their real-life models would have reacted to the situation. And I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of articles, even though most things I learnt from them never explicitly found their way into the story.
Now, about telling other people’s stories, we’ll have to go back to “don’t write what you don’t know”. Occasionally, a straight friend pops into my inbox and informs me they want to write a “gay story” and when I ask why, they say, “It seems that’s the trendy thing now (often adding the clause, “whether you like it or not”, because they know how I’d react). I often do not have the time and energy to argue; I wish them good luck. Days later, when they share the news that they’re done, and would want me to take a look before they send it out (people who could send out stories immediately after writing it aren’t from this planet, I tell you!), I’d ask them why they chose to tell that story. If they still maintain the “trendy” argument, I’ll let the story pass.
About five people have sent me stories (either as a beta-reader or as the prose editor for Artmosterrific) centred around albino characters, some of them claiming outright that I inspire them with my being and guts to tell my own stories. I read the stories because I want to see, to know, and always, they come out hollow and, worse still, pity-arousing that I get angry and tell them outright how bad the stories are.
But sometimes, especially for prose submissions, I am lenient. I send questions before I offer criticism:
Do you know any albino personally? Of course, you know me, but that’s online!
How can my stories, which are just a quarter of the albino experience, inspire you?
If the story was rejected, say, three times, what would you do with it?
How do you know you can tell this particular story better than anyone else, including an albino themself?
If you removed albinism from your character’s identity, what’s left of the story?
Needless to say, it’s difficult for them to answer this question, so they either move on to something else or send their work elsewhere. Of course, it is possible to tell someone else’s story (Becky Albertalli does that so well, sharing the queer experience so well even though she’s not queer), but one has to be present, be closely related, and be truly passionate about this story and its entities. And if one ticks these boxes, it shows in the story; on the other hand, it is very easy to see through a story told to score some vain goal.
To conclude, I would say one should not write about what they cannot feel, or about people they cannot completely ‘see’.
Uchenna: This is such a beautiful exposition, Ola and it’s so true. Honesty is that check we must turn to in the stories we tell. Honesty in the stories and honesty in how they are told. The moment we cannot say exactly why we are telling a story and why we are telling them in the manner it is being told, then maybe that story is not ours to tell. Your last line sums it up perfectly.
Speaking of sending out stories immediately after writing them being out of this world, I think it is safe to say you too are. The Road was submitted just after the first draft, wasn’t it? Yet, look at it doing so well.
Ola: I’m not always that person who sends out stories immediately after I’m done with them. I don’t think I’ve ever done so. Although The Road was a first draft, it was not sent out immediately; it definitely was not sent out with all that rawness and unruly sentences characteristic of most of my drafts. Micro edits and changes/considerations regarding, for example, POV and beginning sentences had to be made.
Uchenna: Oh. Okay then. It takes a lot of confidence to submit a story right after writing it. But does that not reduce the thrill that comes with writing? I read somewhere that the real writing begins after writing. And I agree. Those rewrites, those changes, those periods of imposter syndrome, those breathers taken to figure out if the direction of the story is good enough, that is what makes writing exciting. And I do not think any writer is willing to trade that for such confidence. We be ‘suffer head’ o. (laughs)
Ola: That is true: a piece doesn’t breathe until a second glance, but like most things, there are exceptions, although I’ve never experienced any. Some of my stories, though, do not take full-fledged rewrites to come out as polished as I’d want them; this is because I plan a lot before the actual writing. I’m a strong plotter or perhaps a writer too suspicious of major surprises along the way as he writes. Beforehand, I have to at least know the fact and fiction behind the story, understand character motivations, and have a grasp, no matter how vague, of the ending.
About any writer willing to sacrifice the thrill of discovering a story after it’s penned—there are definitely writers like that. Most growing writers share a common problem: impatience. They want to write and have someone look at it for them, to correct every punctuation and grammatical and chronological error, to do all of these within the shortest time possible, so they can submit it to magazines and receive acceptance emails and even go on to win major prizes. At this stage, they should be—I don’t know—finding their voices or something, reading works and craft lessons, all of that. But the moment I suggest that it feels to them as though I was an enemy, and off they go looking for someone else to tell them writing follows a straight and Nollywood-kind-of-predictable trajectory. And again, there are exceptions: stories that come fully complete, but still, I just can’t.
Uchenna: Very good points made here, Ola. Not the editor in you rearing its head. (laughs).
There is something else about your story I found really interesting and I would like us to dwell on it a bit. In mourning and remembering the Tega each of them knew, a new friendship begins to sprout between Ejiro and Ehimem. The circumstance of this friendship is what I find interesting. There they were bonding over the same person whom they had experienced differently, both knowing that the other loved Tega so dearly. Can you talk about this depth of love? To love so much that it transcends envy?
Ola: I do not think I have mentioned that The Road, like most of my stories, is a ‘response-to-annoyance’ story: something—no matter how petty everyone would consider it—pisses me off and I find a way to address it, mostly to remind myself that things could happen my way. While drafting The Road, I was confronted over and over again with the mentality that love, feelings and intimacy are all terms used sexually or romantically. Many, for instance, can lay their lives on the tarred road swearing that ‘innocent’ friendship cannot exist between a man and a woman; there has to be a little more.
That was what I had in mind while drafting the Ehimen/Ejiro subplot. I wanted intimacy and love and all other feelings that defy nomenclature and categorisation, and so their bonding was born. Just like lovers, they had to experience phases and challenges and conquer them (in the span of a day, I’m afraid): envy, anger, indifference, despair, and whatever.
I think their friendship—or whatever we might call what they are having—blossomed because of these shared emotions. Both Ejiro and Ehimen are angry at the world for its injustice and inequality and cruelty and seeming chaotic assignment of fate. Then, when they meet, they’re angry (or envious?) at each other, with each thinking they have been cheated (on) by Tega—and you know what happens when you, for example, meet the person your partner is cheating on you with! (If we’re to be objective here, the question of Tega cheating on them is out of the way because did he actually cheat?) Both characters do not question that feeling; before things soften, they thrive in that jealousy, even employing it to throw vocal jabs. And then the one shared emotion I think is most moving, although barely mentioned in the story, is loneliness.
Ejiro has obviously never talked about Tega as deeply as she does with Ehimen. You can sense how she does almost desperately, sometimes dishing out information in spurts as though compelled by some higher force. This is therapy for her, I think, and also the beginning of her healing. Apart from the brokenness that comes with losing her supposed husband, she’s also lovelorn, weary, and confused by the phenomenon of being gay, despite how much she’s willing to understand it. By opening up about it, perhaps, she thinks Ehimen can help her see more clearly.
There is evidence to prove that she had never talked with Tega as deeply as she now does with Ehimen. The same applies to Tega: in the desert, the cold nights and dry sands, he finds in Ehimen a pair of listening ears. Ehimen, therefore, doubles for Ejiro and Tega as the channel through which they could express their feelings, and lay bare their most silent thoughts.
One of the most solid foundations upon which genuine friendship can be built is emotional honesty/vulnerability. While this is sometimes a conscious decision to make and could take a considerable amount of time and energy, there are times when we have borne so much that we can’t keep bottling anymore; we explode, let it all out, only (most times) to look at ourselves with wonder or awe or shame or the three combined, wondering how we’re able to achieve that. I think this is the case with Ejiro, and this is what makes whatever she and Ehimen experience at the end of the day so beautiful: she talks about Eguono’s condition which she’d otherwise not share with a stranger who’s just come to inform her of her husband’s death; she lets this stranger into all the unsaid captured by cameras: Tega’s happy pictures, Tega’s father’s bad eye, Tega’s mother; she cooks; she holds back her tears for so long that when they finally pour, towards the end, it encourages Ehimen (who’s been holding his back too) to be vulnerable, to be naked, to cry too. This is what defines friendship, the audacity to strip bare in the glare of a thousand lights, to strip before someone who is naked too, who feels what you feel, who is not reduced to footnotes by shame and gender stereotypes.
Uchenna: It was beautiful to read and even more beautiful hearing you talk about how intentional you were about writing them this way. And yes, I picked on the loneliness, and the irony of the loneliness too. How you can feel alone, even when in love. Both loved Tega, yet somehow still felt like they were alone. This feeling did nothing to their affection for Tega, but the loneliness remained like a stubborn stain. Perhaps there was an emptiness to Tega, a depth neither could reach so what their meeting did was a platform to share their misery and misery loves company. Could you talk about this emptiness to Tega that extended to the people in his life?
Ola: Tega can be a lot of other things, but grief, sadness and loneliness seem to define him the most. Here is a man who loses his mother as a child, who even bears witness to the horror of her death, helpless. There’s his father, the only parent he grows up with who should have filled in the space left by his mother, but instead, we see Tega trying to fill himself up, trying to apologise to his father (by wanting and trying “to change the way he felt about boys” early in life) even before the former discovers his “crime”. And as if fate has a bag of worms stacked up on his head, he ends up harming his father while trying to change himself. There’s Ogaga too, an embodiment of Tega’s romance in the plainest (but probably most abusive) form; Ogaga who could not see through the fog of Tega’s misery, who thought by invoking God into everything, problems vanished. Tega knows all of this, that Ogaga is not what he wants, but he sticks to him till his death nevertheless because, perhaps, he cannot imagine being with someone better, can’t even imagine someone better exists.
That’s the thing, Uchenna: sometimes we are so deep in the dark that the simple act of imagining a slash of sunlight becomes a cosmic impossibility. Perhaps, Ehimen would have been able to offer him sunlight. Perhaps, he’d have been able to find sunlight himself by opening his eyes wider, looking away from the crannies, searching for alternative perspectives to life and all, but that’s it: he has come to accept his state of mind as the unalterable reality.
And why do these feelings seem to seep into the lives of those closest to him? Well, let’s talk briefly about energy, you know, energy is a kind of force or presence upon which entities are said to vibrate. Someone walks into the room and brings with them good energy: soon there’s light, soon there’s space to breathe, soon there’s music. While some people do not catch the energy, some are so empathetic they catch a whiff of it. Ehimen seems to be an empathetic person; in trying to love and unfurl Tega simultaneously, he catches his energy and sinks into the abyss from which Tega cannot envisage even an imaginary escape. Although we can say, of all the people in the story, Ehimen knows the most about Tega, there is still a lot he does not know. Perhaps, it’s not that Tega outrightly does not want him to know more, but he just cannot. He probably does not know how to open up completely. And also, this thing, the idea of opening up, is not as easy and quick as we think; it can take years upon years, even with constant encouragement and therapy, for someone to let you into their unfiltered world. Perhaps, if Tega had lived longer, Ehimen could have seen him in clearer lights. Then, there is the Ogaga stumbling block, and ironically, Tega seems to be guilty of what he accuses Ogaga of—there is no single time he asks Ehimen how or what he feels; it is just him talking and talking all the way. Apart from Ehimen’s internal voice here and there, he does not really get to voice his feelings to Tega. For the five years between Tega’s death and Ehimen’s visiting his family, we can be sure he never talks to anyone about the encounter. He, too, has morphed into a Tega: sad and alone (although, thankfully, he still has some chances of redemption).
I think Ejiro’s loneliness is easier to talk about. Think about a cis woman falling for a gay man with a history of depression and the like. But then, like every other story, there are nuances; layers that, when poked at, make her tale way less stereotypical. Like: why does she remain in the marriage? Why does she have Eguono? Is she hoping for the impossible, a miracle? Does she think the miracle could only happen if she had a child for Tega? Or was it her father-in-law who made her do it?
She does all of this, yet Tega leaves, and she remains, catering to his memories and their autistic child, hoping, even after five years, that the miracle would still happen. And, just like Ehimen, in trying to unravel Tega, sinking deeper into the loneliness that has spanned all of her marital years.
Uchenna: Such an interesting yet complex relationship all three have. But not far-fetched, there are depths to us that no matter the affection shown to us, we somehow cannot just allow being filled. I remember a past relationship and how no matter how I tried she just couldn’t let me in. She repeatedly told me she loved me but somehow couldn’t allow me into that hiding(?) place. I remember one time I begged her to let me love her. “Allow me to love you” I’m cringing as I write this, (laughs). Love strips us of all ego, and leaves us bare and it’s sad when it doesn’t do the same to our supposed partner and no one wants to be standing naked alone.
So this is how I look at Tega: Warsan Shire in her acclaimed poem, Home, writes:
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark”
And rightly so. Home for Tega wasn’t just the homophobic society he attempted to flee from, but himself. He was that mouth of a shark he wanted to escape from. But, how do you run away from yourself? I think Tega knew his death was inevitable, the only way he could truly be free. So, his journey was to leave. To leave completely. Thoughts?
Ola: Aw. Sorry about the relationship. I hope she’s learning to open up now, when necessary because that is one of the most effective ways to help oneself and to attract help from other people too.
But this thing is quite tricky, I mean, the thing with hiding and holding back: sometimes we do it unconsciously; we do not know what our minds tell us—”oh, you just have to be protected”—is actually us holding back when we should have set ourselves free. But as you said, “Love strips us of all ego”. And isn’t it scary? Sometimes I think about it: isn’t it? The fact that, in most cases, the other person is also expected to reciprocate—loosen up, that is—does not seem to help matters, (laughs). But then, the lesson I have learnt from all this is the big lesson about life: it is a game of luck. It is either we win or we lose, and how do we really know and measure our odds if we do not try?
Shire is a brilliant person, and Home is undeniably poignant. And it is quite correct the comparison to Tega. Tega, I understand, is a runner (I have this thing with “running” characters; in fact, another short story titled “Running” was released early September), trying to escape the mouth of the metaphorical shark, and because the shark is also himself, finding himself trapped on the road, succumbing, finally, to death. My grandmother would say you cannot run from your shadows no matter how fast your legs can carry you (unfortunately, though, this didn’t carry some heavy philosophical circumstance behind it; she usually said it when we’d done something wrong and were running away from the house!).
All dying is inevitable, and I do not know if Tega saw his as much more definitive. Was he trying to outrun his fate, to take charge of a part of his destiny he could at least control, or was he running, deliberately, to his own death? It gets quite blurry here, (laughs). I do not know if, assuming he was confronted by death, he’d have at least tried to fight his way through. It could be so, or not. But if you ask me, I think, at that moment, death was the only lasting solution. If he’d lived, he might have still had to face Ogaga, perhaps caught between him and Ehimen, and that would have been bad for him given his blurry view of life already. Even if he mightn’t have returned to Eguono and Ejiro, he might have still thought about them, worried about them, and that, the guilt, would have left him worse than he was already.
Uchenna: Running is such a familiar resort and it’s important that we have stories that represent this. I like to think that we are mostly running people. We run from our problems, responsibilities, and even ourselves. Takes some level of confidence to face them. I don’t know if I have that, (laughs).
Let’s talk about Eguono, such a sweet innocent child through whom we got a perfect ending to the unfurling. Could you talk about writing the final scene? That pivotal role she played through her painting, that solace and closure to her grieving mum and father’s lover without even knowing.
Ola: Yeah, we’re all natural runners. It is not always bad, though. Sometimes we just have to move: away from abusive jobs, partners, environments, name it; I like to think that’s courageous, the ability to leave the comfortable for the unknown, which Tega has done here.
Eguono is one of those characters I create after watching an extremely moving movie or reading a fine book. I have many created like her, some who have found their way into stories, some who are still waiting. In Eguono’s case, I watched a Zee TV titled “Antara” and it moved me to the marrow. I started to seek out more about autism and related conditions. After a while, the character of Eguono gradually formed. That was before The Road materialised. Eguono came in only after I had hit a very bland end. I wanted catharsis or at least a hint of something beyond an ordinary resolution, and then she had to come in. It was after writing the ending that its significance hit me. Eguono is innocent. She lives in her own world. She has no idea that her father is dead. She does not understand the complexities of human emotions. But there is shocking news: she’s able to capture, on a single paper, what two emotionally complex adults are struggling to understand. While both Ehimen and Ejiro will never understand Tega because none has really seen him happy except for that picture, Eguono recreates that moment, that slice of boundless joy, without effort. If she did not contribute thus, those two adults would not have known what to do with their raging emotions. Although it doesn’t float on the surface, there’s some tension between them, possibly mild rivalry and envy, and they’d bid each other farewell holding onto these feelings. But Eguono has to come in, a silent voice that makes a banging impact on the long run.
You must have interacted with children, Uchenna. Doesn’t it strike you how much we can learn from their innocence? I taught a class back then in school, you know, teaching practice stuff. There was a child just like Eguono, in the ease with which she moves through the day, secure in her own world, watching without being seen. I’d ask the kids to copy what was on the board, but while others struggled to achieve that, this particular child would draw one or two strokes, lay her pencil on the desk, and sit back. And she’d not sit that way as others submitted their works; she’d rather be on the first line, holding out her book, grinning. Imagine such nonchalance as a response to some of the troubles of adulthood!
It’s funny and true: sometimes children can see better than adults because adulthood usually comes with its blindnesses; while Ejiro and Ehimen, like most adults, spend the whole day analysing, throwing subtle jabs at each other, cleanly sweeping around delicate subjects, Eguono’s approach, like my pupil’s, is quite simple and more goal-oriented: do something about it (or—in my pupil’s case—do nothing about it!).
Uchenna: Yes, I agree. I spend a lot of time with kids as a Sunday school teacher and I’m always amazed at the innocent brilliance they exude even in matters I can’t completely comprehend. Do you know what I dislike? How the average African has failed to realise this and consider children’s opinions (if even allowed to have one/air it) irrelevant. That forced silence stays with the child and stomps on their budding confidence. I have a conversation about it with YA author Miracle Emeka-Nkwor here.
Reading Eguono was such a delight and that ending is utter beauty. A beautiful end to an otherwise quite sad story.
Ola: You can’t imagine how many times I have told parents and my teachers this: by shutting a child up, you’re belittling them, denying them their basic rights to expression. But everything is summed up in what I like to call the politics of respect. Children are not allowed to look elders in the eye let alone try to say something when they are not permitted to. And God forbid something happens to the child, we hear these same people wondering aloud why the child did not report anything to them.
Uchenna: Oh Ola, I have thoroughly enjoyed conversing with you. Also, congratulations on your fellowship, recent nominations and publications. These are really amazing feats which bring me to my final question, how do you go about your submissions? When you submit for submissions or prizes, do you do it with such an open mind? Or have you over time become more confident in your work that you’re now deliberate about acceptance when submitting?
Ola: Thank you so much for the kind words. Occasional validations like these, getting published, and getting a fellowship, make the writing journey way less frustrating. For me, writing is safer than submission. In fact, I see every submission as a trial; not each ends well, at least for a couple of times, but all these years, I have learnt to deal with rejection emails as mere rejection emails and nothing more. Once I have been able to build a story, I stand by it through its cycles of rejection, rereading, editing, and resubmitting until it reaches its goal. The most important job is to write, enjoy the process, and love the result, not necessarily to submit.
Confident? Tell me another story, please! See, I’ve finally accepted the fact that I can never be confident in my work the way I presume other people are. Sometimes I’m surprised by acceptances. I remember when a story of mine was shortlisted for a prize. I went over the story again and again wondering what the guys saw in it! That’s how it often is for me, but I keep it going. After all, writers have to be read, right?
Uchenna: That’s the spirit! To tread on amidst the doubts. Just know I’m rooting for you always. Thank you so much again for this conversation.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
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.