Doing Unimaginable Things With Language: A Dialogue with Kasimma
Kasimma is from Igboland—obodo ndị dike!
She holds the 2022 Nikky Finney Fellowship Award for outstanding writing. Her stories/poems appear on Guernica, LitHub, Solarpunk Magazine, Afreecan Read, and several others. She is the author of All Shades of Iberibe (November 2021), and its Croatian translation, Portret Za Dar-mar (November 2022). All Shades of Iberibe is the Porter Square Books Staff Pick for November 2021, one of Brittle Paper’s 50 Notable African Books of 2021, and one of Black Boy Review’s Best Book Titles of 2021. Kasimma has been awarded residencies at The Wole Soyinka Foundation, Faberllull, Sinthian Cultural Center, Ebedi Hills, and Study Abroad in Lebanon. She is an alumna of the Short Story Day Africa 2018 Flow Workshop, 2018 International Writing Program (IWP) Writing Workshop, 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing workshop, and others. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics/Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She was born in Jos, hails from Achina and lives in Abuja, Nigeria.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Sokoto, Nigeria and Abuja, Nigeria, via WhatsApp.
Uchenna: Hello Kasimma. Thank you so much for accepting to do this interview. Let’s dive right in, shall we? I loved your Gerald Kraak Prize shortlisted story “Where One Falls Is Where Their God Pushed Them Down”. I think it is written beautifully.
What strikes me most about it is the overlaying humour. My recent reads have been quite sad, and I must confess those are the kind of stories I’ve come to fancy more; stories that come with punctures, stab my dear heart, and leave it bleeding. So, reading yours was quite refreshing and was a much needed comic relief.
Though the issues your story engages are serious and important, its treatment is comical, and the reader finds themselves laughing and reflecting simultaneously. From the opening line, I knew that this was going to be a fun read and then even after reading and saddened by it, I recall the events that led to this, and I’m all smiles again. So, can you walk me through the writing process? The formation of the idea? The build up? How it eventually came to be what it is now?
Kasimma: Thank you for having me, Uchenna.
Writing every story is unique. Sometimes I know the entire story before I write. Other times, I know only the beginning or the end. But I always allow the protagonists to tell their story. I am only the writer.
For this story, “Where One Falls is Where Their God Pushed Them Down”, I think the idea came one Sunday in church. The Chief Pastor is a woman. She was sitting in front and a young girl was leading the praise and worship. I was upstairs, always upstairs. This means that I have never seen this pastor up close. So, I started having ideas: how someone who reveres this pastor from afar now gets an invitation from the pastor, how elated they might be. That was the idea. When I started writing, the protagonist said she is a lesbian. I let her take it from there.
Uchenna: Interesting. This idea of letting the character tell their story, I think, is the most organic way of telling a story. Nothing is forced. The characters breathe into the story and the plot flows.
Now to your story, there is a short story by Adichie with a similar plot, and I wonder if you’ve read it and if it has any influence on yours. The story, “On Monday Last Week” talks about a Nigerian woman in the United States who works for a family as their babysitter. The mother of the house, an artist, is almost never available and spends most of her time upstairs in her paintings. The first chanced meeting the Nigerian woman and the mother get, the former is taken by the latter’s beauty and begins to imagine that there is more to her stares especially when the latter offers to paint her. Of course, her hopes are dashed when she learns that it is just her being polite.
We tend to lose hold of logic when we love sometimes. We imagine that the people we like, like us back and everything they do gears toward our imagination. So, they could compliment our voice and what we hear beneath it is a longing for us to whisper in their ears. They could platonically call us beautiful and we hear “I love you” instead. And when we come to the realisation that it was all in our head, it can break us. Sometimes, we resign from love and focus on other things. This is different in the case of Okuchi. Rather than break, she uses it as motivation to do something she long feared: coming out as a lesbian. Why do you think she reacted this way?
Kasimma: Well, Uchenna, I really do not recall if I have read this Adichie’s story. If I have, it certainly did not come to mind while I wrote mine. But the story sounds intriguing.
I really cannot answer for Okuchi. If I knew why she acted like that, it would be in the story. But this is MY thought. Disappointments are a pathway to blessings. In the law, there is always a compensation for every disappointment. What matters in times of strife and even joy is our attitude. So Okuchi faces this stabbing disappointment that she was not looking for in the first place. She could have taken it as a signal that she is still what she says she isn’t. Instead, she took it as a sign to come out. It’s just the attitude of forward and onward movement that she invoked in this instance. As I said, this is Kasimma’s opinion, not Okuchi’s.
Uchenna: I like how you’re reemphasising your separation from your own creation. And I get it. A non-literary person may see it and question your sanity. They would be like, aren’t you the one who wrote them, why shouldn’t you know? (laughs)
Another aspect of your story I would like us to discuss is Okuchi’s relationship with her parents. With her mum, we see how distant they become. “My mother used to love me. She used to tell me that I was the light of her life,” Okuchi reveals. So, what may have happened? Was it Okuchi’s refusal to get married? Or was it the mother’s growing suspicion that Okuchi liked women? Or was this her mother coping with her husband’s unfaithfulness? The story doesn’t exactly say.
With her father, we can say that he is more accommodating, but as we read further, we learn that he isn’t the saint we think he is. So, it’s possible that his loving Okuchi could be his own way of making up for his excesses and not exactly genuine.
Could you talk about writing Okuchi’s relationship with her parents and how its complication affects Okuchi accepting who she is?
“Igbo is so beautiful and so rich that when translated to English, we get an exquisite display of English sentences. We are going to do unimaginable things with this language that was imposed on us.“
Kasimma: Okuchi’s father’s affection is genuine. He loves his daughter. It has nothing to do with making up or not. I don’t think he knows that Okuchi is a lesbian.
Her mother knows and hates that Okuchi is a lesbian. Uchenna told her. Uchenna must have slipped her a note or something that day. This realisation made the woman stiffen her hold on Okuchi. She also lessened her love. So Okuchi is just trying to gain her mother’s love back so that she can confide in her. If she has her mother’s support, her father’s will be a piece of cake. Now, Okuchi knows who she is. And she decides to stay single rather than commit to a heterosexual relationship. She has accepted who she is, but she tries to suppress and ignore it to death because she is still a Nigerian after all. And Nigeria is still hostile towards the LGBTQI+ community.
Uchenna: This is an interesting perspective and better explains Okuchi’s relationship with her parents, albeit it being quite sad.
What was more heartbreaking was that even when she summoned the courage to come clean with her mother’s long suspicion, she backed out and simply left. She didn’t only suffer rejection from this pastor but from her mother as well.
What effect were you aiming for when you ended the story the way you did?
Kasimma: I was not aiming for any effect. I only wrote down what I was told. I too wish that Okuchi got a chance to just be herself. But I think it is easy to see that she has seen the light and will no longer subject herself to the darkness of the closet.
Uchenna: Yes, I agree. Something definitely changed about Okuchi after her encounter with Pastor Dorcas. She may not have exactly come out to her mum, but there was a certain clarity that accompanied that rejection. Reminds me of a recent tweet by Nigerian writer, Arinze Ifeakandu. He said, “Sometimes, disappointment feels like heartbreak, but it is a beautiful, beautiful door to walk through”.
“Where One Falls Is Where Their God Pushed Them Down” could pass as a sad story. And indeed, it is, especially considering how it ends. Okuchi doesn’t exactly get a happy ending, but at the same time the style of narration placates this sadness we should feel for Okuchi. I would like you to talk about your usage of humour in this story and how humour can be used as a tool in telling somewhat ”difficult” stories.
Kasimma: I think humour is in the DNA of Nigerians. Upon all the wahala in this country, there is still so much laughter. So, it was easy for me to write humour into this story and others.
There is nothing the eye will see that will make it shed blood. Sometimes, you need water to push yam down your throat. Sadness, anger, negative emotions hurt you a hundred percent. So no matter how difficult the situation, there is something to be grateful for. Find that thing and hold on to it because it is your place of respite. Humour is the coolant in a fiery story.
Uchenna: “There is nothing the eye will see that will make it to shed blood” may just be my take home quote from this entire conversation.
Yes, humour does have its use. It’s a tested and trusted coping mechanism and Nigeria is proof. Every day, new skit makers emerge and we turn the things that should enrage us to jokes and laugh away the pain.
In storytelling, humour soothes that heaviness that comes with reading a sad story and makes it lighter. Quite an effective tool indeed. But don’t you think it also takes away that rage we should feel sometimes about certain things? Especially unfairness, injustice? Chimamanda argues that “anger has a long history of bringing about positive change” and so maybe that fiery story should be written just as hot to provoke that needed rage which demands change. What do you think?
Kasimma: I completely see your point. But you cannot quench fire with fire. Storytelling is my voice; my way of saying what I want to say. It is my way of washing this earth the best I can in my lifetime. O mmili ka-eji asa ife; ejighi ife asa mmiri. (Water is used to wash things, not vice versa). And water is cool, refreshing, calming. That is what humour does. It refreshes and calms you when you are reading an infuriating story. I don’t want anyone getting angry when the anger will not be used to effect a positive change in a peaceful way. One’s anger, if not well-channelled, is a waste. But the issues I challenge in my writing are unfair and annoying. That is why I employ humour and humanness in storytelling. Even if you don’t remember anything, you might remember something funny a character said and that will drag your mind back to my story, and, in effect, back to the plight of my character and theme of the story. And if the story is not human enough, is bloodless or dead, even if you laugh at the humour, there is nothing to take home. So, when a homophobic person keeps remembering the humour in my story, and in effect the story, one day, they will understand Okuchi’s pain and see the folly in their belief.
Uchenna: Let’s go back to Okuchi’s parents a bit. I don’t know why I can’t shake the feeling that there is more than meets the eye. Firstly, their marriage was far from perfect and reflected the kind of marriages that exist in a deeply patriarchal society like ours. When her mum learns of her father’s unfaithfulness, rather than leave or confront him, she begins to look for ways to contain it: like replacing the housemaid with a houseboy.
For me, this added more layers to her character, and I began to look at her in a new light. What if this hurt from being in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful partner contributed to the rift between her and Okuchi? What if it was more than just finding out that Okuchi liked girls?
Just as I earlier hinted, I also began to look at her father in a new light. What if his love for Okuchi was only to make up for his actions?
I would really love to hear your perspective further on these two characters. Did their marriage, by any chance, influence their relationship with Okuchi? Or am I just overthinking them?
Kasimma: Okuchi’s mother was firing and hiring housegirls when her husband was unfaithful. But she switched from housegirl to houseboy when she found out that Okuchi was a lesbian.
I think she preferred to avoid the remote cause of the problem. She is too informed. Her husband is too aloof. But their marital wahala has nothing to do with their love for their child.
Uchenna: Your response reminds me of this common joke about literary critics and how they like to infer from even the commonest of things, “A blue curtain” translated as sadness hovering, when the writer actually meant that the curtain was blue. I’m now caught by the same joke. (laughs)
Back to your story, now this even makes Okuchi’s story even sadder. To lose favour in the eyes of her mother who, according to her, used to love her so much, simply because of learning that she likes girls, is quite sad. But then this is a reflection of our society. Every day, we read on Twitter a new queer person losing a home for coming out. Their “supposed” families suddenly start to hate them, leaving the queer person no option but to leave.
And this has contributed to why many queer persons choose to remain in the closet. If your family, who is supposed to love you unconditionally, cannot accept you, what more a society that doesn’t know you as much?
Quite pathetic, don’t you think?
Kasimma: It is. Mana o ga-adicha mma. Everything will be fine eventually.
Uchenna: Amen to that.
Let’s talk about your titling process.
Titles are a hard nut to crack, because you continue to doubt what comes to your mind as an encapsulating word or sentence. As a writer and as an interviewer myself, I struggle to find the right title, and I would like to know what the process is like for you.
Your titles have this ring to them that sell the accompanying stories immediately. Take your short story collection for example, All Shades of Iberibe already builds a longing for the stories in it. I remember stumbling on it in my research for this interview and the haste with which I added it to my TBR. Your short fictions online as well have such fine titles. From “Where One Falls Is Where Their God Pushed Them Down” to “A Plastic Bowl of Snake” to “Jesus’ Yard”, to “Caked Memories”. How do titles occur to you? Do they come before writing the story? Or do they happen as you write?
Kasimma: Titles! Ha! Omo, amarokwam! I don’t know. I think every story is unique, down to its title. I like to give my stories a title once I start writing. I always like to save it with a title, not just “doc 1” or the first line. This prompts me to give it any title, based on what the story is about. Sometimes, I name the story after the protagonist and then change it when I have thought of something better. “Where One Falls is Where Their God Pushed Them Down” is an Igbo adage that was a meaningful chunk of the first line of that story and which I used to save the document, hoping to change it when I have a better title, which did not come. So, every story is unique. Sometimes the title comes first. Other times, it comes last. As the spirit leads.
But thank you for the compliments: deeply appreciated.
Uchenna: Igbo has such a stronghold on your writing, as much as in themes as in the language. You affirmed here that “Where One Falls Is Where Their God Pushed Them Down” is a translation of an Igbo adage, and in many of your other stories, we see an unapologetic insertion of Igbo. Elsewhere to Joseph Demes, you confirm the same. I like the effect this fusion produces because it gives the stories this homely aura, an identity. What I would like to know is if by choosing to write in a fusion of English and Igbo–or what we call Engiligbo–it is you pitching your tent with Achebe who argues that “we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it”?
Kasimma: Okay, so, I do not write Engiligbo. Engliligbo is something like “Anyi na-aga church.” I don’t do that now, do I? (laughs)
But, seriously, Igbo atoka. I am deeply, very deeply, in love with Igbo. I do not want Igbo to go extinct. My aim and wish is for Igbo to stand side by side with English and French. I want Igbo to take its place as the original language of this world we are in. I am going to contribute my quota. I might not see the result in this lifetime or several lifetimes. But if I don’t see it as a human, I will see it as an ancestor.
And about the quote from Achebe, I am not consciously doing that, but I agree with him. Igbo is so beautiful and so rich that when translated to English, we get an exquisite display of English sentences. We are going to do unimaginable things with this language that was imposed on us. Anyi ga-akuzi ha na asusu anyi majara ahu.
Uchenna: The part about making Igbo stand side by side with English and French, reminds me of this argument I had with a member of a book club I run . We were discussing Ogadinma by Ukamaka Olisakwe and my friend was of the opinion that Ogadinma wasn’t written for him and based this off on the language of the book. Now, Ukamaka, like you, infuses a lot of Igbo words and expressions into her writings and Ogadinma has a lot of that. What is interesting here is with context provided, it is easy to read the meaning into these expressions, yet he insisted that it was too “Igbotic”. I reminded him of the many times in the past we read Western books that had a lot of French expressions which were never translated and how he had no problem with that. He couldn’t say anything afterward.
People tend to elevate European languages over ours and consider them exotic enough to be fused with the “ultimate” English language, but would begin to feign exclusion when it’s an African language fused with English. Ever gotten a complaint from an editor, reader or publisher about your usage of Igbo?
Kasimma: Funnily enough, I just had this discussion with another writer a few hours ago. Yes, definitely, there have been pushbacks about my use of Igbo words in my stories. The painful ones are those complaints coming from ndi Igbo. For goodness’ sake, you guys are the .001% for whom this language is inserted and you ask me to be “calming down?” E no gel nau!
Yes, I have also gotten “complaints” from editors. The editor of All Shades of Iberibe, Buzz Poole, is an amazing man. He saw on time what I wanted to do with Igbo in my stories and he helped me achieve that.
Considering that I have a ton of online publications, I also have a ton of rejections, but no editor has ever turned down my work because of the Igbo in it. If they have, they did not say in their rejection letter. A very few times, the editors suggest that I take some of the dialect out or italicise them, or translate them for non-Igbo readers. I tell them that number one, it is a full autonomous language, not a dialect. Two. I am neither taking it out nor translating it. Three. If it is covered in quotes, I will not italicise it.
I write in such a way that whether you are Igbo or not, you will get the full dose of the meat of the chicken you paid for. I translate Igbo words without making it obvious, but it cannot be missed that this is the translation of the Igbo. I read books that have other languages sprinkled in them and I love them. So, if I tint my story with my language and you ask me to take it out, you are asking me to take myself out of my story. In whose story will I now insert myself, my identity? It’s a no-no for me.
Most editors are more welcoming of diversity and I applaud that. I read loads of translated stories. We are many and diverse in this world. It’s about time we acknowledged that.
The only time I turned down a publication was because the editor insisted on italicising Igbo words that are already in quotes. I said I’d rather not publish. Igbo is my own. The story is my own. I will do what I like with it. The journal is yours and I totally respect your decision if you do not want to publish. But as I said, this happened just once, and I was the one who walked away, not the editor. The entire story, for crying out loud, is written in English and just tinted with Igbo. Is it even fair to ask me to take the Igbo out?
Uchenna: Oh yes, it is unfair. And yes, the way you infuse Igbo doesn’t in any way alter the structure of the sentence. By just looking at the preceding and succeeding sentences, it is easy to read meaning into the words.
It’s quite sad that even among ndi Igbo, you face such reception. Says a lot about how we value our language. I mean we’ve seen how some Igbos refuse their kids from learning and speaking Igbo because they don’t want them to be perceived as “local”. Of course, people like that would find it a problem when they read a piece of literature with Igbo words. They consider English to be too elitist to be mixed with Igbo. I think it’s high time African writers began to bare their identities in their stories, not just in the stories we tell, but how we tell them. On the topic of language, do you ever see a time when you’d write completely in Igbo?
Kasimma: Everything you said is apt.
No, I do not see myself, in the near or semi-far future, writing completely in Igbo. Never say never. I might consider writing a poem, probably Haiku, in Igbo. (laughs)
Uchenna: I would love to read your Igbo haiku. (laughs)
Kasimma, it has really been lovely to Learn of your writing process and what went into your beautiful story on the Gerald Kraak Prize. To conclude, can you share title(s) you are reading now and others you recommend? I tend to take very seriously recommendations from writers whose works I love. So, please recommend.
Kasimma: Thank you, Uchenna. I also enjoyed this conversation.
I am currently reading Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. I love it!
This dialogue was co-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.