Why I Write About The Immigrant Experience

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Unoma Azuah, a Nigerian writer who teaches English at Lane College Jackson, Tennessee, in the United States is the winner of several awards, and has through the feminist motif in her writing, gained prominence as one of the strongest voices in Africa. The immigrant experience in the United States is a thread that runs through her works.  Some of her published works include Sky-High Flames,  The Length of Light, Night Songs and Edible Bones (her latest novel). In this Interview with NEHRU ODEH, Azuah, who was recently in Nigeria speaks about her latest novel, her writing career and sundry issues

Why did you title your latest novel, Edible Bones?

Edible Bones is symbolic of scraps and left-overs. This symbol speaks to the fact that the major character in the novel has to make do with scraps when he realises that he missed the feast. In other words, he finds himself making the best use of the misfortunes he encounters.

What is your latest novel, Edible Bones, about? And how long did the writing process take?

Edible Bones is about Kaito who has to deal with a challenging crowd at the American embassy in Lagos. As a security guard for the American Embassy in Lagos, Kaitochukwu daily contains the rushing hundreds of eager Nigerian visa applicants who, before dawn, line up pressed against locked wire fences outside the embassy entrance. When 8 a.m. arrives, the embassy opens. Each day, only about one third of the men and women get their turn at the service desk as the day progresses. Most of them are told that their request for a travel visa has been denied. Kaitochukwu, however, gets the long anticipated news that is opposite of that received by his fellow hopefuls. His request for a visa to travel to the U.S. has been approved. Kaito departs for Cleveland, Ohio, excited to fulfill the American dream of his media driven imagination where every house is a castle, and every American life is complete with luxurious cars, designer clothes, and widescreen TVs. His journey as an undocumented African immigrant in an unwelcoming American urban square, chronicles the distance between his grand expectations and his ensuing formidable fate. The process took three years because apart from writing, I also had to do some research to get the best understanding of some of the themes I explored in the novel.

 The immigrant experience is a thread that runs your writing. This is obvious in your works such as The Length of Light and your latest novel, Edible Bones. Why write about the immigrant experience?

Some people say you should focus on what you know best. In that context as an immigrant, I see stories that emerge from my experience and the experiences of people that share the same space with me. Further, I had the impression before I left Nigeria that the Western world healed all wounds in every aspect of the word. I realised that it necessarily did not. And I needed to tell that story; that in my opinion has not been told enough. Life is life, no matter where you are and each region comes with its own pains and gains.

You are a Nigerian writer based in the United States and also an immigrant. Are your works autobiographical? Do they reflect your experiences in the United States?

Both. My stories come from what I feel, hear and see. Because one is involved, one is able to recount more or less a firsthand experience, be it in the first, second or third point of view. One has to know it in some kind of way to be able to tell it. No?

You are a writer who is very involved in society, organising writing workshops, teaching, research etc. Why do you do those things rather than concentrating on your writing? Are those things not distractions?

My impression is that life is not complete until you live it from as broad a perspective as possible. Also, there is greater fulfillment in giving back to a community that nurtured you. At least, that’s what I believe. So, I more or less spread whatever I can offer as wide as possible.

Sometime ago you organised a writing workshop for incarcerated women. Could you speak more on that workshop? Why did you organise the workshop. What was your experience and where/when did you organise it

The workshop was organised by the Dairy Hallow residency in Arkansas in the US. This is one of the workshops out of many. It was a residency I applied for and got when I needed to complete my collection of short stories entitled the Length of Light. Part of the residency activity was to share time with the community where the residency is located. The workshop was organised to engage incarcerated mothers in a creative activity. The mystery surrounding the so-called criminals was demystified for me. I discovered that they are as human as I am. They feel every emotion the average human feels: anger, pain, regret, joy, pleasure, etc. So it reminded me of the humanity in all of us even when we are pushed to limits we are never prepared for. That these women are criminals do not make me any better than they are. I may have done exactly what they did if I were in their shoes. As part of the workshop, I shared some Nigerian music with them. We listened to very talented Nigerian artistes of the 60s and 70s like Ebenezer Obey. They did not understand his Yoruba language but they were able to connect and relate to his music, his sense of melancholy. In other words, his creativity resonated with them inspite of the language barrier. That was powerful.

How did growing up influence your writing career?

I was fortunate to have had a grandmother that told stories. She told me stories as often as she could every night and I got hooked to the magical world of words and imagination. When the story telling ended with my transitioning from childhood to some form of teenage hood and I had to relocate to a boarding school, my grandmother was not there with her stories. I had to make up my own stories. Hence that initiated my journey to the world of creative writing. Thanks to my grandmother, I fell in love with words and the imaginative world. My literature teacher in secondary school then took it a notch further.

A common theme in your writing is the place of women in the African society, and that is also found in the works of other Nigerian female writers such as Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa. Why are you interested in the place of women in society? Are you a feminist?

I am a feminist, yes! Unfortunately, there are those who are very uncomfortable with the empowering of women, but the progress of women can’t be stopped. There is no way we can justify denying our mothers, our wives and our sisters opportunities to support their family through legitimate means and to receive education. The last time I checked, in Nigeria women constitute more than fifty per cent of the population. To deny women viable economic and educational opportunities is to retard the prosperity of the nation. If more than fifty per cent of the population is unskilled and uneducated then that nation’s workforce fails to achieve optimal productivity, creativity, efficiency and competitiveness. Again, the issues of over flogging and boring do not even begin to arise. I think that most of the critics spreading this bogus hypothesis are bigots representing themselves and a whole bunch of male chauvinists who are very uncomfortable with anything feminist or the empowering of women. How can anyone call gender issues irking when Nnuego’s experiences in Joys of Motherhood are still being perpetuated? The notion that gender issues are overdone in Nigeria is deceitful to say the least.

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You won the Association of Nigerian Authors award for your first novel. What did that award mean to you?

I am grateful for such awards like the Association of Nigerian Authors award; it is very encouraging and affirming.

Why is it that Nigerian publishers prefer publishing Nigerian writers based abroad or publishing Nigerians writers after they have won foreign prizes?

I don’t know about that because I can’t prove such an assertion. Perhaps, on that issue, you may know better. Perhaps some Nigerian writers based abroad have more exposure and are better armed in the sense that some of them compete from an international platform. Who knows?

Could you name some of your influences?

I have quite a number of role models among Nigerian older writers; Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Zaynab Alkali, Mabel Segun, a whole bunch of the then Pacesetters writers, Onitsha Market literature icons, etc. These writers introduced me to adventures in a familiar world. They used the materials I could identify with to craft their stories, and beyond their themes is the fact that their dexterity in character moulding, plot, suspense, and resolutions is stunning. Added to these traits, as far as the women writers are concerned, is that they bare the cruelty embedded in our patriarchal system. This is especially found in Alkali’s masterpiece The Stillborn and Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood. Nwapa has “re-righted” the image of the Nigerian woman in literature by creating characters like Efuru who are not only independent and strong, but very resourceful. Nwapa’s later novels became more daring in confronting the dilemma women face in being themselves versus what society expects them to be.

Some Nigerians writers have been criticized for their negative portrayal of the Nigerian/African society. Are those criticisms justified?

It really depends. For those that might want to tell it the way it is, painting one’s society in a positive light when such a society has glaring flaws will not serve any helpful purpose just as dishonesty as a way of seeking underserved attention does not amount to any good. Honesty pays off in writing.

How do you get raw materials for your writings set in Nigeria, since you live in the United States?

I make the best use of both worlds since the two are the worlds I now straddle.

 Do you think every writer needs a writing workshop experience to be a great writer?

Not necessarily. But this question calls to mind the biblical issue that speaks to the fact that iron sharpens iron. If there is no communion in the fellowship of creativity, we may go astray in the sense that we need to be aware of the best as a way of having a maintaining standard. It is progressive to have the best interacting with the mediocre for instance to be able to be the best they can be.

What are your challenges as writer? Have you had rejection slips? And do you feel when you get them?

I’ve had numerous rejection slips. Fortunately for me, I am passionate about writing; hence the rejection slips don’t and can’t stop me.

What was your experience before you published your first work? Did you face enormous challenge publishing your first work?

I would say that I was fortunate enough to have my first publisher attend one of my readings during one of the Association of Nigerian Authors meeting in Lagos. This was in the late 90’s. The publisher was moved by some of the poems I read that the publisher asked to see my manuscript, which was eventually published as Night Songs.