Memory as a Motif in Fiction: A Dialogue with Joshua Chizoma
Joshua Chizoma is a Nigerian writer. He was a finalist for the 2022 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He won the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize and the 2021 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Review. He won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the Flash Fiction category and judged the prize in 2022. His works have been published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Lolwe, AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Kalahari Review, Prachya Review, and elsewhere. He was selected for the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie and has a law degree from the University of Nigeria.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Sokoto, Nigeria and Kano, Nigeria, via WhatsApp.
Uchenna: Hello, Joshua. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you. You know how much of a fan I am of you. This would also make it the second time we are discussing your craft. You were on the shortlist for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Besides that, in the last three years, your stories have been well received, earning top nominations and clinching prizes. How does this make you feel about yourself?
Joshua: It is delightful having this conversation especially with someone who has such a deep appreciation of the arts. I feel very grateful and deeply fortunate. Writing can be a very uncertain craft so you do your work and hope people get to read and appreciate it and that it resonates with them. It’s a little like sending your babies into the world and so you are not exactly sure how receptive the world will be. For me though, I try to have fun while writing my stories as much as I can. I try to immerse myself into the process and enjoy writing the stories before I send them out and maybe get rejections, acceptances or before I get published.
It always comes back as a pleasant surprise when people read the stories and it resonates with them and they send messages about the stories and want to discuss my work. I feel deeply grateful for that, so when these stories eventually transcend to the point where they get shortlisted for awards or they win awards, it is like an icing on the cake because I know it does not happen to everybody because I know it hasn’t happened to all my stories. When I saw the shortlist for the Caine Prize, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude.
Uchenna: I think it is very deserving all of the flowers you’re getting now. You do the work, it’s only fair they are well received.
Speaking of the uncertainty of writing, the last time we conversed in 2020, this was the center of our conversation. You talked about the volume of doubts that trail a body of work. How you can never really tell the outcome. From you finding satisfaction in what you’ve written, to the journal or prize you’re submitting to, to the reader. Before we discuss your story, Collector of Memories which I absolutely loved, I would like to know how you tell a work is ready. How do you know it’s time for it to meet the world? Also, have your recent wins made you more confident in your writing process?
Joshua: I do not think a work is actually fully done because even after you finish writing the stories, you’ll have cause to go back to them. So, like you said, one can only know that a work is ready to be put out into the world, and I think for me it’s when I feel the story has been told. If I’m writing a short story, I often feel dissatisfied if I can tell that I have not fully explored the plot so there is something left to be told, there are places the characters have not fully explored and when I feel like I’m done with the story then, of course, it will be ready to be shared with the world.
This does not mean that I’ll be unable to do some line edits and it could also mean cutting out some parts. For Collector of Memories, I had to cut out some parts towards the end because I felt that those parts didn’t fit the narration of the story. For me, it’s at the point where I feel the story has been completely told and that is when I believe it is ready to go into the world but not before further editing like line editing and sentence-level ones.
I think there are a few moments of doubt here and there in the writing process. If anything, these recognitions have made me more confident of the fact that when you put in the work it will eventually pay off. It would result in better writing and acknowledgements for your work. I’m also confident in the fact that a good story can speak for itself on multiple platforms and I’m particularly grounded in this knowledge because of Collector of Memories which I sent for the Afritondo Prize and got on the shortlist out of over 300 entries, which my editor also sent in for the AKO Caine Prize and it also got shortlisted amidst several hundred submissions, all of these without having to lobby it to people. So, I believe that we can have that one story that would bring us to the forefront, that will establish all the work we have been doing in the background and I have seen this play out with other writers. And it may seem as though you have not been working all this while but all the time put into honing your craft led you to that moment, to the point where your work begins to get introduced to a larger audience and get you the recognition you have worked so hard for.
In summary, this, and other recognitions, have made me confident in the fact that hard work, especially when channeled towards writing, will pay off and a good story will speak for itself and finally, it is possible to strike gold with one story.
Uchenna: Let’s talk about Collector of Memories, this one story that continues to shine. I think I’ve mentioned it to you before, but I love the emotions you write into your story and the many layers it can have. Every time I read Collector of Memories, it remains as refreshing as the first read and there is something new to unearth. I like how it explores identity, an evergreen issue that continues to shape our life. It asks hard questions: Who are we? What is our past? Who are our parents? Are our lives determined by our past? Our birth? Who we call mom? Or who actually births us?
Can you give me a back story? What informed Collector of Memories? And what was it like writing the story?
Joshua: Collector of Memories came from an exploration of identity, who we are at our core, external to what people have told us the validation we have received and the information we have gotten. As I see it, our person is formed from the memories we have created or the memories that have been handed to us over the years. Basically, I was asking, at what point do we carve a person for ourselves apart from all of the memories we have created and what kind of a person can we create for ourselves? But even more, I was exploring the idea that if a huge part of our history is taken away or fundamentally altered, what is left of us? If the rug is pulled from under our feet, so to say, how do we stand? Where do you find your identity again? That was the theme I was exploring from the start, that was like the skeleton.
“We have the ability to choose the kind of memory that is primary to us. We can choose what we give relevance to, regardless of what has happened to us, regardless of what we can remember.”
For the flesh of the story, I drew from my experiences growing up in Aba, Abia state, in Southeastern Nigeria. As a child, Ioften heard stories of children who got abandoned and it occurred to me to question how these children grew up and what became of them. I knew for a fact that their histories were shrouded in mysteries and I imagined what would become of them if they were told their histories and how it would affect them. As we see in the story, the version of the history that Chibusomma knew got changed twice, what remains of this person? And so that was what fleshed out the story.
It was tasking, really. For some reason, the idea I had in my head about the story was missing a link with what I had on paper. So, I remember writing different drafts of the story and reading them and not being satisfied. Even when I had a good-enough draft and sent it to my friends and asked for feedback, apart from line edits, when it came to the plot, the replies I got were different from what I had in mind and I again felt that there was a disconnect and I had to do a rewrite and even change the ending multiple times before I got a version I was satisfied with.
The task was even more daunting because I wrote it during the pandemic when I was at home. With all the turmoil going on in the world, writing was usually my escape. When I was writing Collector of Memories, there was a lot of that going on in the world. It encroached into the safe space that I used to have and it impacted my writing and how I viewed and currently view the story. I wrote a couple of stories during that period and because of how much work I put into Collector of Memories, it was not exactly my favourite story from that set, which was surprising because as I had mentioned I usually try to enjoy the process of writing, but it didn’t seem that I enjoyed writing Collector of Memories, it was subsequently that the story grew on me. It was difficult writing the story but I guess it eventually paid off. Even before it was shortlisted for the Caine Prize, I had people send me messages via Instagram and Facebook about how much they loved the story and how they found themselves in the characters. It gave me a sense of fulfillment to see that.
Uchenna: I like that Collector of Memories also gives us a fresh perspective away from the usual leaning of stories like this. What we hear and see every day, especially on the Nigerian social media space is from the lens of the hurt parent, not the child whose whole life is completely changed by such revelation. Take paternity or maternity fraud cases for example, and what forms most of the conversations, it is the man or the woman airing their hurt and opinions siding with them or excusing the offenders, very little attention paid to the child(ren) who have learnt that they’ve been lied to all their lives.
And in the case of Chibusonma, it is even sadder because she thinks she knows her origin and is holding onto a truth told her, one that she confesses made her accommodate the snide remarks and jokes from other kids, “my mother did not burden my story with the weight of shame, I had none to spare” she says. Then learning that that truth was all a lie, that the story that wasn’t burdened with the weight of shame, was not her story, that her birth mom never abandoned her, that betrayal is enough to undo anybody. But she had a more collected reception to the revelation? Can you say why?
Joshua: It did appear that she wasn’t so affected by this second revelation. She was not even deeply affected in the first place. I think this must be because of the fact that at this point she had carved an identity for herself. She had come to a place where she was a whole person independent of what she’d been told. So, that was the beauty of her mother telling her the story of her origin early on, and putting it in such a way that she didn’t have to be burdened by the shame of it. What it did was that it armed her with the tools to take on life so that something she was supposed to be ashamed of especially in this part of the world became something that was just there as a matter of cause; something that happened just like in any other person.
So, when she found out the second time that the story was not entirely the version that mum had told her, from her responses and from her engagement with her mom and aunt, you could see that it was the betrayal that she felt. She was more betrayed than devastated by the story changing. She was betrayed by the fact that they were able to hide this from her over the years, and you see later on that somewhere in the story, towards the end when she is looking through her metaphorical bag of memories, she knows the version of that night that she’s going to keep and I think that is because the story of where she came from was not so fundamental to her person as she had become a full person that was independent of all of that.
Uchenna: And I see why she was that way, Chibusonma was shrouded in love so genuine, none of them had to do anything over the top to show it. She knew she wasn’t theirs and they knew that she knew, yet neither made the daughter-mother relationship weird. I remember one scene in the story that reminded me of what it was like growing up under my father. So, I had offended him in class or at least that’s what my teacher said, (laughs), and he refused to punish me and was going to report to my Dad instead. When my Dad dropped by to pick me up and learnt that they were saving a case for him, he was so mad at me for making the teacher feel like he doesn’t get to punish me (like that’s any fault of mine), at the teacher for not realising he had the liberty to, and at himself for seemingly suggesting so. This man dealt with me in front of the teacher, which was so embarrassing. And you remember something similar happened to Chibusomma. Her aunt, instead of punishing her, waited for her sister to return and when she did, she was angry that they had to wait for her and went on to punish Chibusomma. Must be a Nigerian parent thing (haha). This idea of it taking a community to raise a child.
What was it like writing these three women that took Chibusomma as their own? Can you talk about this interesting relationship and affection the three sisters had for each other and how they extended it to Chibusomma in their individual way
Joshua: Thank you very much, this is an interesting question because writing about the relationship of the sisters and by extension how they treated Chibusomma was one of the easiest things I had to do when it came to writing the story. In the first place, one of the characters, the middle child, Chidimma is based loosely on a family member I lost around 2016 who was very dear to me. Chidimma captured her essence. This relative was a very bold, direct and kind-to-a-fault kind of person. I remember a line in the book that says “The only reason Chidimma will not give you something is if she doesn’t have” and this was the way my older brother used to describe this relative and so it was really easy writing that part.
And then for the other two sisters, it wasn’t something I had to think so hard about because the community in Nigeria, Africa, generally, is given to affection and sharing love. We put a lot of primacy on family and on the ties that bind us so I imagined that kind of scenario and it was just easy to write, drawing from the experiences from where I grew up. It was common to see a community of people raising a child. Like you rightly said in your example, it never comes to a time when the parents of the child just raise the child themselves. The community sort of pitches in to raise the child so that was what the sisters were doing.
Affection is what we find in many households. There are the usual altercations, and fights between siblings but then the differences are put aside and there is this loyalty and affection that is shared which I have witnessed happen all the time. In the absence of other immediate family members to raise the child apart from the three sisters, I just felt that it was sufficient how Chibusomma had an abundance of love from her foster mothers to the point that there was no need for something external or any feeling like there was a lack in her life which is what I have experienced as an individual in immediate families.
Uchenna: Speaking of this absence of lack in Chibusomma, I remember in an earlier interview, you talked about how deliberate you were about making Chibusomma’s foster parents women as a way to debunk this sexist idea that a woman needs a man to raise a child and I loved that it was a deliberate decision because it caught my interest too and I thought it was an unconscious feature. Although, there is something about Chibusomma that I still have not figured out. Was there something hindering her from starting something real with Chike? I mean, she likes him, right? But it seemed like there was a void that even Chike could not reach or fill, do you think this had anything to do with her birth mother?
Joshua: That is a really important question and one that I do not think I have had an answer to. And yeah, I was asked that question by the guys from SomaNami Books too, when we did the interview about how perhaps the lack of relationship with her father and maybe the general environment where she grew up could have impacted how Chibusomma viewed relationships, especially in the complicated nature of her relationship with Chike. But to be honest, when I was writing the story, I was not really focused on that, I was interested in writing about a character that was complicated of course, because essentially that is how we are as humans. And one of the ways to depict that was in her relationship with her partner, sexual choices and all of that so could it have impacted? Of course, I think so, bearing in mind the kind of upbringing she had and her history and the fact that she was well aware of all these so it may have impacted but I would not know for sure.
Uchenna: I also think so, maybe this self-consciousness of there being more to her birth, resulted in her own mystery and just like Chibunsomma, don’t we also have our own mysteries? Things we cannot comprehend or explain. Things we do/don’t just because.
Joshua: Oh yeah yeah. And I also think it mirrors how in real life we sometimes have—I don’t want to say accumulated trauma—but we do things and we do not know the reasons for them. And they could just be because of our lineage, our histories, what we have been served, what we have been told, and the results of all of these things. We might not even be conscious of how events from the past shape our current actions, our current behavior and all of that, and sometimes we are not even aware of them until someone, points them out and shows the correlation between ‘oh see what you’re doing now’ and what had happened in the past with this person and this person and stuff like that.
Uchenna: Exactly. Because we are all collectors of memories and so these memories are bound to shape us. Sometimes they do and do not even let us know of the changes. This impressionable nature of humans makes me sometimes question if we truly have absolute control over the trajectory of our lives. I mean just collecting one memory is enough to change everything we thought we knew and like Chibusomma, can undo us. It’s scary, right?
Joshua: Oh yes, it is. We sometimes think that we have control over our lives and the trajectory of our existence but no, in a vast majority of instances, external factors, things external to us, control how our lives will turn out. What we are told, what happens to us, all of those come together to shape the kind of person that we are. Like you said it can be scary, it can be scary to a large extent but I also think we have the ability to choose the kind of memory that is primary to us. We can choose what we give relevance to, regardless of what has happened to us, regardless of what we can remember. We may not be able to change the event as they were, but we can change our perception of them, we can change our reaction to them and sometimes that can even be unconscious. I do not know if it has happened to you before when you’re trying to recollect something and you are telling somebody a story and someone tells you ‘no no that’s not what happened’ and in your head you are thinking this is actually how I remember it but factually that is not how it happened. So sometimes our brains, maybe to protect us, reshape our recollection of things in a way that suits us and I believe we can also be conscious about that. At the end of the story, we see Chibusomma going through her bag of memories, a sort of metaphorical bag of memories, and choosing the ones to stay and the ones to go so it really just depends on the person.
Uchenna: Yes, Joshua. Many times actually. I think it’s one of my many escapes. I remember things differently so I do not have to deal with the pain again. But it is at the same time something I’m trying to unlearn, because it is a double-edged sword. As a society, we have seen how remembering what we want or selecting the memory we wish to carry has led to some kind of gatekeeping, especially in gender and sexuality issues. You hear things like “it’s not in our culture” while a trip down memory lane, would show there is nothing new about that. Or how we exhibit what I like to call collective amnesia and willfully forget the actions of a certain man and then go ahead to parade him as some kind of hero. So yes, I understand the need to guard our memory sac but I also think we need all of these memories to form our choices. So, pros and cons, why does life have to be so difficult? (Laughs).
Joshua: Oh yeah, I agree with you there are certain things that are immutable. I mean, history is what it is so there should be specific landmarks, especially like you said for making decisions in the future. If anybody had the room to remember things differently and in the example you gave, people remembering things differently, choosing to revise history as it were, it leads to catastrophic choices because as we know history repeats itself if we do not make the required adjustments. But on a personal level, I think I would err on the side of having individuals create the memories they want for themselves, especially as it concerns them. Because what is the value of a memory that gives you a warped sense of self? So yeah, I would err on the side of an individual creating the memories that they want for themselves and what forms the core of their existence, and what gives and what does not give. This is taking into account the fact that there could be cons to it, which is that we might not have a full sense of self because an individual is the sum of their good and bad decisions, good and bad memories, whether they like it or not.
Uchenna: I see your point more clearly now and I think it’s something we should be more deliberate about, always striving for personal comfort, even if it means adjusting our memories. As you said, what indeed is the value of a memory that threatens your self-consciousness?
At the end of your story, there is this familiar hesitation around Chibusomma and taking her aunty’s call. She dreaded that the person at the other end may have unfavourable news and so chose to not hear it at all. It is familiar because it’s something I relate to. After losing family umpteen times and hearing about the loss from a phone call, has made me dread phone calls from home. My imagination immediately begins to run wild and somehow, I eventually choose not knowing to knowing and grieving. Like Chibusomma, presented with two options: ignorance or facing grief, the former seemed the most favourable. Could you also talk about this?
Joshua: Yeah, yeah exactly, you’re right. The thing with certainty is that it extinguishes hope. When you know something, you know it has either gone this way or the other way. There is no room to hide under the hopes that this may have gone the way you wanted it to go. Especially, in a situation such as Chibusomma’s where she knows that there is a possibility it would be bad news if she picked the call, so in that way, there was still hope. She could still hold on to the belief that her mother was alright or not. She wanted to explore it for as long as possible because immediately she takes the call and whoever is on the other side tells her the reason they are calling, there is no room again to just pretend that things will be alright. It is either things will be alright or things will not be alright. As you said, we humans often just err on the side of not knowing and going ahead with the belief that things will certainly be okay even though it might just be best to yank off the band-aid and know the results. For her to just take the call and know, because of course it could also be that her mother just fully recovered, just yank off the band-aid and find out, but that is not how we are built as humans. We are people of faith, so we are more likely to believe that things will be alright even in the face of contrary evidence and I do not think there is anything wrong with that. The entirety of humanity has been sustained by the faith of people who continue to work against all odds.
Uchenna: In your last dialogue with us for the Afritondo Prize, you told Chisom how easy it was fleshing out the characters because they are set in Aba where you grew up, and also how this was a shift from your earlier Lagos-set stories, which I think was a Nigerian writing community thing, “the Lagos stories”. What I would like to know now is if you have become more intentional about the settings of your stories by choosing sets that are nostalgic or suit the story being told.
Joshua: Oh yeah, yes, so when I write now, I’m more deliberate; I feel a deep connection to my characters where I feel like they are familiar; I feel like I know them. I always say that when I wrote especially for Collector of Memories, I felt as though I could be walking down the street one day and maybe run into one of the characters and maybe say hello to them. That is usually because of the amount of work I put into building my characters. Over the years with the more work I put out, the more important it’s become for me to set my characters in places that I’m familiar with. It helps with writing but also it helps to humanise the characters, and it helps to give people a sense of connection. You said a few years ago it was as though people always set their stories in Lagos, but when you are deliberate about putting characters in places that are not famous, that are not very popular, that have not been popularised in art forms, literature or movies, you grant visibility to people in these areas. That’s sort of like what Chimamanda did with Aba in Purple Hibiscus and Nsukka in her other works. When stories are set in these sorts of places, people who do not share that reality, who might not even know that these places exist, are able to connect and are able to recognize and I think that is an important thing that literature does.
Uchenna: This is very valid. I’m reading a novel right now titled The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, it is slated for release this April from Bloomsbury / Ouida. The entirety of the story is set in Katangora with references made to other Nigerian cities like Sokoto and Abuja, and I’m excited to see how the events unfold because Katangora is not a usual setting in Nigerian fiction. I’m happy that we have new stories like yours, that drift away from the usual Lagos/Abuja stories.
To wrap up, I would like to know what is next for you. You recently were called to the bar, and it came with a fine honorarium, congratulations! What’s tomorrow going to look like? Do you intend to be practising and writing at the same time? How do you hope to strike the balance if you’d be juggling both professions?
Joshua: Thank you very much, Uchenna. Yes, I intend to ‘attempt’ a combination of the two. I recently just started working in a law firm and being that I am just starting out, there is a lot to learn, a lot to keep up with and not enough time. Still, I feel a compulsion to write, a sort of insistence that this part of me will not cave to the demands of the corporate world. I tell you; it is not easy. The legal practice is cruel in its demands, and writing, the kind of writing I aim to put out, is equally a jealous lover. So, as I see it, it might just be sheer will and love for these two parts of me that would keep me going.
To be honest, I think that achieving balance – the idea that these two highly demanding parts of me will weigh on me equally – is a myth. At this point in my life, I am giving a lot of myself to building my career in law. To that extent, of course, my legal career would seem to have primacy at the moment. But of course, understanding that this compromise is necessary for this journey to becoming an expert in law is perhaps in itself ‘balance’. Savouring the snatches of time I get to write – in a bus on my way to work, during a lunch break, on the rate work-free weekend – is ‘balance’. Accepting what is, while hoping that a perfect world where I do not have to choose will one day be within my grasp, is to me, ‘balance’.
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.