Epistolary Fiction as a Conduit for Empathy: A Dialogue with Claudia Efemini

EPISTOLARY FICTION AS A CONDUIT FOR EMPATHY

A DIALOGUE WITH CLAUDIA EFEMINI

Claudia Efemini is the author of A Letter Away From Asaba, a historical novella on the censorship of the Asaba massacre during the Nigerian Civil War. She is also a History and Politics student at the University of Edinburgh. A writer and avid reader, Claudia is captivated by the powerful influence of art in society and politics. 

Saliha Haddad

BY SALIHA HADDAD

This interview took place between Scotland and Algeria, via email.

Saliha: Hello, Claudia. I read your novella in two sittings, only stopping because I was obliged to. Congratulations on putting out this captivating story. The first question that popped in my mind when I started reading was this: Why did you choose this form to tell the story? I must say that I am not the biggest lover of stories told in the form of letters and have always been apprehensive of them, but A Letter Away From Asaba changed my mind. Was it challenging to write it this way?

Claudia: I’m really glad that you enjoyed the epistolary style. I chose to write it in this style because I wanted it to be an emotive story, one in which the reader can really empathise with the protagonists, Onome and Chioma. The diary entries intended to be a method to make readers feel like they’re in the minds of the two young women. The letters sought to depict the contrasting experiences and views of the Asaba massacre in London and Asaba. 

Personally, I enjoyed writing it in this format. Though at times I faced difficulties writing from two different perspectives based on two different characterisations and keeping the tone consistent throughout. But overall, I think I managed to find a way to execute this through my writing style. 

Saliha: That’s really interesting. You are evoking the emotive side of the two characters. It is true that reading their diaries adds so much to these characters’ depth.

One of Onome’s letters to Chioma seems insensitive, which I believe is because of the limitedness of words when conveying emotions but I would also add that it happens due to the differences between them, which keep resurfacing despite their attempts to get past them. What do you think?

“I wanted it to be an emotive story, one in which the reader can really empathise with the protagonists.”

Claudia: I definitely agree that reading the diaries of both Onome and Chioma makes the reader more familiar with their characters. As a reader, you are really taken along on the journey with them and are able to both empathise with them and criticise them in certain moments. 

Onome’s letter to Chioma, after she reads the news article referring to the massacre, is indeed partly insensitive due to the limitedness of letters and her inability to fully express her thoughts orally. However, the main reason behind this insensitivity is the censorship of the brutality committed by federal troops in Asaba.

Onome is reading news in Britain that is not correlating with what Chioma is saying and for a moment she unintentionally starts to dismiss Chioma’s experiences. This is reflective of the experience of many people in the African Diaspora who have to critically engage with some Western media as the stories often misalign with what is really happening to family and friends back home.

Saliha: It is quite interesting to read your novella in light of what is happening right now with the Palestinian war, the censorship and the media coverage. The state of a world at war is dire, even with the existence of media outlets and social media. Perhaps the positive difference could be that more people have access to the real lived experiences of the victims.

If the Asaba massacres happened today, do you believe that media coverage, censorship and people’s awareness would have been different to what is currently happening with Palestine?

Claudia: I think that this is a very thought-provoking question, and it is definitely something I have thought about quite recently. My thoughts are will all the innocent civilians in Gaza and people all across the world suffering due to abuses of power.

In response to your question, I don’t think that it would be quite the same had the Asaba massacre happened today. I think that the African Diaspora has grown immensely since then and our ties to people in the African continent are arguably much stronger. Also, with the power of social media I think that the Asaba massacre would have been more widely discussed. Even with apps like Tiktok, as disheartening as it is, we are exposed to footage of the civilian suffering in Palestine. This was not at all possible during the late 1960s when the Nigerian Civil War happened.

I think that the issue lies in the misrepresentation and censorship in mainstream media specifically. There are many journalists in Gaza as well as other parts of the world covering the realities of current events. As such, if the Asaba massacre was to have happened in modern day I think that though it could possibly be censored or misrepresented within mainstream or Western media, the people on ground are often able to show us the realities through the power of social media.

Saliha: Thank you for this very thoughtful and sensitive answer. I agree with you on that and we have indeed seen the power of social media and even if online activism has not resulted in an immediate change because the powers that are waging the war and perpetuating the genocide are too big to surmount, we are creating accessible records of history for the next generations in the hope that the victims will not be forgotten and the atrocities not repeated.

African (and in particular Nigerian and Ghanaian) fiction has gained more and more traction these past few years and we see more African writers being published by Western publishers. What do you think of the African fiction today? Who are your favourite African novels and writers? I know the label African fiction is not favoured by all but what I mean here by the term is fiction written by African writers both living both in Africa and the Diaspora.

'A Letter Away From Asaba' by Claudia Efemini
'A Letter Away From Asaba' by Claudia Efemini

Claudia: I definitely agree. African fiction is expanding, both from African writers on the continent and in the Diaspora. As a British-Nigerian author, African fiction, both old and new, has become an important source of learning and enjoyment. I also love how diverse the subgenre is becoming with writers from the continent as well as writers from all across the Diaspora. The choice is fruitful and endless. 

My favourite African fiction novels are vast. To name two that come to mind, I would say Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I really loved reading those two books because of how both narratives thoroughly engaged with history. I have always been a lover of historical fiction and given my experiences of ethnocentrism within the discipline of history, historical fiction helped to fill that void. The void of not being able to study African history in as much depth as other regions at university. It really appeals to me how African historical fiction combines creative writing with history, two things I adore. 

Saliha: I know that you are a student in History and Politics, and I hope you will find every success in your studies. I would like to know how you got into the path of creative writing. What made you want to tell stories as well? What and who inspired you?

Claudia: I started writing fiction when I was very young. I’ve always enjoyed reading and I think that inspired me to write stories. I only really started taking writing seriously when I started university. I aspired to be taught African history and was disappointed to find that my options to do so were very limited. I channelled my frustration into reading African historical fiction and writing fiction that explored African history. This paved the way for my debut novella, A Letter Away From Asaba, to come into fruition. 

Saliha: To conclude this wonderful conversation, please let me know of your future creative projects?

Claudia: Future creative projects – I am currently working on a second novel. But I also write articles on culture, history, and philanthropy that mostly pertain to Africa and its diaspora. I’m also currently on an exchange year at McGill University and I have written several culture articles for The McGill Daily and The Tribune

Saliha Haddad

Saliha Haddad has worked as a literary interviewer at Africa in Dialogue and her reviews of books have appeared in the other side of hope, The New Arab, and Transnational Literature. Haddad’s creative work has been published or forthcoming in Agbowó, Isele Magazine and New Lines Magazine. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the African Writers Awards and won first place in the inaugural ANTOA Writing Contest.

SALIHA HADDAD

INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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