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New voices of Nigerian fiction from Chimamanda’s workshop

Every year, I organize a writing workshop — Purple Hibiscus writing workshop — in Lagos. Thousands of people apply, many of them talented. But we have room for only 20. In choosing the 20, I look not only for good writing but also for courage and for what I like to call heart.

We spend 10 days in a small hotel, around a large table, talking and laughing, reading stories from laptops and phone screens. We disagree and agree. We argue and explain. We talk about popular culture and politics. We break for lunch in the hotel restaurant, and pile our plates with rice and yams and plantains and vegetables. We take pictures. I ask about the poets they like and I ask about their love lives. We become, even if only briefly, a family.

This year, the 10th of the workshop, my friend Dave Eggers was kind enough to come and co-teach and to give these young writers a chance to have their first major publication.  I love the confidence, the clear-eyed honesty, the beauty, of these stories. In the early 1960s, with European colonialism ending all over Africa, Nigeria was at the center of a new African literary renaissance. But cultural production dipped with the military dictatorships of the 1990s, when little fiction was published. Today there is another renaissance, and it feels to me more resilient, more diverse, and with less of an obligation to overt politics. The young writers I have met at my workshops—like Ope, Roy, Adachioma, Chukwuebuka, and Ngozi—make it clear that our storytellers are here to stay. The five writers talk about their take on audience, the role of place in their work, their experiences at Purple Hibiscus, and more —— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

CHUKWUEBUKA IBEH
What did you see as your audience, if any, when you wrote this piece? When you write in general?
I was too obsessed with getting the story down on paper as vividly as it played in my mind to consciously ponder an audience. Generally, when I write, I only hope my family, especially the ones older than me, do not read it. And that the younger ones are sensible enough not to discuss it with them. I suppose this is a way of saying I don’t really think of an audience when writing. It has been said that doing this is a sort of self-censorship—and where I’m coming from, there’s a whole lot of things you’re not supposed to be talking or writing about—so it gets in the way of the writing, and I quite agree with that.

What was your biggest takeaway from the Purple Hibiscus workshop?
The idea of “plausibility” in fiction is overrated. Also, it’s important to acknowledge your privilege and be intuitively aware of how much it allows you, even things you don’t necessarily deserve. It’s doubly important to have this in the back of your mind when what your writing involves an under-privileged group. Acknowledging your own privilege gives room for empathy, which is probably the best quality you can have as a writer. I could go on and on.

How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I think about writing much more than I actually write. I’m hoping this changes. I am an obsessive editor. I could take so long to write a very short story. “The Good Ones Are Not Here,” my story in McSweeney’s, was in the works for about three years.


ADACHIOMA EZEANO

Where do you live? How does it affect, or not affect, the sense of place in your writing?
I was born in Onitsha, Nigeria, and in 2003 we moved to Awka, a small university town, the capital of Anambra State. I was young, very young. Yet I can still remember the transition, and it shocked me. Though I didn’t know what culture shock meant then, I believe what happened to me was more than culture shock.

In Onitsha, life was fast, noisy, very noisy. It was in Onitsha that I learned what it meant to experience armed robbers in broad daylight; muscled men shooting their guns loud, citizens aka the victims running for shelter while the police flew from the crime scenes. It was in Onitsha that I learned what it meant to watch humans burnt alive for stealing something as trivial as underwear. It was in Onitsha that I learned what it meant to have neighbors who genuinely called you neighbors, strangers who would become family simply because you preferred to pay for the apartment next to theirs.

The rhythm was different in Awka. In Awka, life was simple. My father worked in a mortgage bank, and my mother taught in a state government-owned primary school. We lived near university lecturers and civil servants and public servants, people who read. And life was like the early morning breeze; soft, uncorrupt.

Now, when I write, consciously or unconsciously, of course I find these places working into my settings. These are the stories I know. And not all of us can tell of Lagos.

What was your biggest takeaway from the Purple Hibiscus workshop? 
I remember on this particular day, one of the workshop participants pulled out this fanciful diary that was further fancied with words from Chimamanda Adichie, and I was surprised and guilty at once. I hadn’t thought of taking notes while Chimamanda was speaking, not because I didn’t know I should. I had even come with a book. But I was consumed with looking at her while she talked, while she gesticulated, batted her eyes, stood up, walked, sat down. One particular evening, class had ended, and we were having the moments, a sort of social class, I cannot remember what was being discussed. But she called me by the name I love, Kpakpando, and asked my opinion.

Sincerely, I don’t know where what I said had come from. I’m sure I said rubbish. Yet, nobody acted like I said rubbish. And that was one of the many strings of beauty of that workshop. Sitting in that class. Filled with beautiful young men and women. Beautiful, smart, intelligent. Yet, kind, excessively kind.

I said to my friends, I think I might reapply again this year. Of course, that is not possible.


ROY UDEH-UBAKA
What did you see as your audience, if any, when you wrote this piece? 
I don’t quite believe I think about my audience at all when I write. I just write. Now, this is not to say that in general I do not write to be read. It’s such a beautiful thing to be read, and to be read by many, but when it comes down to it, I really do not consider my audience in the primary process of writing. A word comes to mind when I think about writing for an audience, and this word is “allow.” I find that with my stories, and the contents of most of them, there are a lot of questions surrounding what I am (should be) allowed to write about, and I find this absurdly restricting.

I like to think that first and foremost, I write to and for myself, like a written soliloquy—a note, of sorts, to self. I did, however, appreciate the feedback from close friends, particularly women, who read through the first draft of this story and were taken by the limitless boundaries of what love should and can be. And this, for me, is how I hope this story will translate for everyone that reads it—as a heartfelt love story.

What surprised you most from the Purple Hibiscus workshop? 
The workshop was, as Chimamanda often put it, a safe space. I guess if I was particularly surprised by anything, it was the intentional consistency with which this space was guarded. For ten days, we watched each other unravel, strip ourselves bare, and stand in what the world outside would have cloaked in prejudices, and we chose—for it was always a choice—to press our bodies together, guarding jealously one another’s truths like they were ours. And this, for me, was everything.

Where do you live? How does it affect, or not affect, the sense of place in your writing?
I think place, whether good or bad, like the weather, encompasses us—sometimes without our knowledge. I was born and raised between Enugu and Lagos, and these locations have been central in most of my stories. Place plays a considerably important role for me because it provides an indelible sense of presence. In “Until It Doesn’t,” there is a small mention of the “abroad,” which one of the protagonists believes to have changed his friend. This is an age-old belief in my country, that “abroad changes you,” particularly for the worse, and I wanted this to be fundamental in pulling the characters apart.

The concept of place, nonetheless, played a pivotal role in differentiating the behavioral patterns of both protagonists. Before I wrote this story, I often wondered about the possibility of a place owning you in ways that are not primarily known, in ways that seep in and take root in who we are constantly becoming, whether for good or bad.

OPE ADEDEJI
What’s the value of short stories, in your mind, over longer fiction? Why is it a form that speaks to you?
I love short stories. With this form, you can compress so much in so little time and space. To do this requires expertise. Every word is intentional and is there for a purpose (as we learned in the class taught by Lola Shoneyin) unlike with novels, where there’s avenue for diversions. Short stories leave room for readers to imagine and to create multiple scenarios in answer to questions the story may have left hanging.

Still, I value the longer form as much I do the shorter form. Reading a novel is also like going on a journey into the unknown. There’s that adrenaline that good novels offer, in both reading and writing them.

What was your biggest takeaway from the Purple Hibiscus workshop? 
I feel like I took so much of equal importance from the Purple Hibiscus workshop that it might be wrong to put one lesson on a pedestal and say, this is bigger than the rest. I’ll just say that the workshop gave me a community of people with whom I can share my work with; who can give me honest feedback; and who I can share my writing victories and rejections with. I had no idea just how fundamental this community was to my career until the workshop. Ours is a community of very brilliant writers of various backgrounds and ages who I consistently learn from and who share valuable criticism, opportunities and their reading list! Every writer needs this.

NGOZI JOHN 
What did you see as your audience, if any, when you wrote this piece? When you write in general? 
When I write, I don’t have to actively think of an audience. Because I am Nigerian, and share her experience, I automatically write as Nigerian, and to/for Nigerians. I’m writing in their culture, their language, their nuances, complexities, dynamics. In a scene from my story, a father abandons his child to attend a Fela concert. Now, while a non-Nigerian can relate to this, the only point of connection might be the rave of attending a similarly famous artist’s concert.

But for a Nigerian, there is a psychological, ideological, political, musical, and social attachment. However, as much as my primary audience is Nigeria, I’m writing human/individual stories which aren’t peculiar to only Nigerians. So, by extension, I’m writing to anyone who shares similar experiences with the characters in my story. They may not be able to situate themselves within the environment in which my story occurs, but they can identify with it.

What was your biggest takeaway from the Purple Hibiscus workshop? What surprised you most? 
Oh, the friendships! But more than that, a scene plays out in my head, where one of the participants had written about a myth of wrapping children’s waists with snakes to prevent them from bed-wetting. There was some sort of argument on how valid or effective this myth is. Two other people confirmed this belief, but most of us were ignorant of its existence. Listening to and interacting with twenty-one people from different parts of the country and world for ten days began to highlight my limited insight of the world—even my own society. How little attention we pay to the diversities in our existence. How unmotivated we are in the deliberate learning and observation of the world.

What surprised me most? Ironically, I would say, the parallels in our worlds. I know Cameroon is proximal, but I still found it interesting that we share some proverbs. I remember Clementine using “na condition make crayfish bend,” in one of her stories, and trying to explain to us, and we were like, “Ooohh, we know this one.”

How would you describe yourself as a writer? 
Self-aware. Empathetic. Emotive. Emotional, too. I don’t start to write until I can feel it trying to jump out.
Nigeria and Africa as whole sure needs new voices in the literary space. Will these young writers fill that void and become truly become widely known in Nigeria and all around the world?

This article was first published in McSweeney’s; an independent nonprofit publishing company based in San Francisco, USA.

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