Author of Ogadinma and founder of Isele Magazine, Ukamaka Olisakwe, prefers to discuss the realities of motherhood, childbirth and wifehood: ‘Ogadinma is a composite of the women I know, and so I wanted the story to reflect the period and the communities truthfully, no matter how uncomfortable those truths are.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read every entertaining book I could lay my hands on, from John Grisham to Nora Roberts, Sydney Sheldon, James Hardley Chase, Danielle Steele, and even Frederick Forsyth, who my father loved. I also read romance books, everything I could find from the stables of Harlequin and Mills and Boons, whose covers we would tear off because of the explicit graphics and because I grew up in a deeply conservative community in Sabon Gari, Kano. Our parents had purist ideas about what a girl should do with her time and the kind of books she should read.
I didn’t particularly love literary novels, what’s supposedly considered high fiction, because I thought they were boring, their plots tedious. But over the years, after I moved to Aba to start a family and subsequently, found an interest in storytelling, my taste shifted, and I have since come to love the kind of books my secondary school teachers encouraged us to read.
If your life so far was a series of novels, which novel represents you at this moment?
It most certainly will be Americanah. Like Ifemelu, I left my first love (postpartum narratives and interiorities), explored different themes, and returned to find that first love at home, waiting for me.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I was going through my archive yesterday and came across the notes I made in 2016 for a panel discussion at the University of Iowa’s International Writing programme. I argued for asylum and immigration; it was the time when many countries in Europe did everything in their power to stop, and even deport, people seeking refuge in their countries, and I said something, quite foolishly, in the line of ‘I agree that it is impossible to absorb the over sixty-five million people all over the world who have fled violence, however…’ This was so naïve because what the present war in Ukraine has shown us is that countries can indeed come together and provide shelter for people during difficult times and that immigration and asylum discourse, and the language the media uses to describe those fleeing violence, are undergirded by racism.
I read every entertaining book I could lay my hands on, from John Grisham to Nora Roberts, Sydney Sheldon, James Hardley Chase, Danielle Steele, and even Frederick Forsyth, who my father loved.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
That would be Parul Sehgal’s essay, ‘The Case Against the Trauma Plot’. I had always disagreed with people who have a problem with stories that explore trauma because their arguments were often condescending or dismissive. A writer I will prefer not to name said that the best literature, in his view, are the ones that focus on the pains of others, never the personal. Other critics dismissed immersive personal narratives as trauma porn. What I found in their arguments was that these critics had an idea about what literature should be and how it must be written, and so writers who dare to stray from their prescriptions are treated harshly.
Sehgal introduced a new tangent to that tenuous conversation, and I found myself paying attention, agreeing in parts, disagreeing in some parts. She argued that the ‘trauma trope’ sometimes flattens characters to symptoms, especially when it is introduced as the only totalizing factor, the only ‘past’ story that justifies the sum of a character’s present. In this vein, complex people and their complex actions are tethered to a single traumatic event in their past. Our beloved TV character Ted Lasso, whose humour won hearts in season one, is given a traumatic back story in season two that explains his humor as a coping mechanism. Sehgal’s essay reminded me of an excellent Twitter thread by a creative writing professor (sadly, I didn’t save that thread or the name) who said she encourages her students to add multiple threads to their character’s life so that their entire existence isn’t framed as a single story or a symptom of a single event. Readers are allowed the opportunity to draw their conclusions based on these multiple threads without the writer heavy-handedly deciding what the interpretation must be. I thought that was brilliant.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I begin a series of editing after I have successfully crafted a rough and often terrible first draft. The first set of edits is the most painful. Here, I cut out the clutter, reconsider the voice, the structure, the plot, sub-plots, and arcs; this step is so tedious, and I wouldn’t say I like every step. The second leg is the most enjoyable; this is when I begin to play with language, flesh out things that need some meat, trim, read my lines aloud, revel in the beauty of my own creation, and take rests in between. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if someone someday invents a device that can transcribe my thoughts, clean them up, and hand them over so I can begin from step three?
What was your process for writing your most recent novel, Ogadinma: Or, Everything Will Be All Right?
I wrote the first draft in three months and spent a year or so editing it. The subject is difficult, and I found myself taking breaks from it to breathe because Ogadinma is a composite of the women I know, and so I wanted the story to reflect the period and the communities truthfully, no matter how uncomfortable those truths are. It was the most challenging thing I have ever written; I couldn’t possibly stomach one-tenth of what Ogadinma went through. I often wanted her to do something violent or rash, to exhibit the kind of heroics we expect of women today. But this story mirrors reality, set in the early 80s, and so must be told differently, hence why I relinquished power to the mothers who inspired it. And I am happy I did.
I found myself taking breaks from [writing] it to breathe because Ogadinma is a composite of the women I know, and so I wanted the story to reflect the period and the communities truthfully, no matter how uncomfortable those truths are.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about Ogadinma?
It was an Instagram review by a reader who was upset with me because of the ‘abrupt’ way I ended the story. She wanted more for Ogadinma—the girl ‘suffered’ a lot, the reader argued, and so deserved more space within the confines of that book to explore joy, to have fun. It moved me, that a reader could be that invested and emotionally drawn to my fictional character and wanted the best for her. I loved that review.
Which part/chapter of Ogadinma was the easiest or trickiest to write?
The second chapter, when Ogadinma moves to Lagos, was the easiest; it mirrors my first impression of Lagos when I visited in 2001. Like me, she looked out of the window to take in the sounds and images and smells. I still remember, quite vividly, every bit of that journey because it was the first time I would go on a long-distance trip, unchaperoned; the first time I would sit in a bus for over 16 hours, looking out of my window as houses blend into bushes, cars speeding past, our driver pausing at intervals so we can use the restrooms or buy snacks along the way. I loved that trip and tried to give Ogadinma a bit of that enjoyment in my novel.
Which books would you say are ‘in conversation’ with Ogadinma?
I put Ogadinma in conversation with Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood; that novel and the legendary writer herself significantly influenced my writing and my current thematic interests. Emecheta paved the way for writers like me. So, I am revisiting themes of motherhood and childbirth and wifehood, and how these shape our worldview and curve our narrative arcs. Other important books I put my novel in conversation with include Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer, and Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
How much did you draw from your life experience while writing Ogadinma, the protagonist? (For example, Ogadinma grew up in Kano, similar to you.)
I did draw a lot from my life and the lives of the women in my immediate community. We famously married quite early—my mother at 16, me at 19, my aunts at different points in their teenage years. So, yes, there is much truth to that novel. I consider Ogadinma a love letter to my community; it is a hard conversation we must have and a reminder of where we used to be. A lot has changed. A lot is changing. And it is important to document these changes. The Igbo, in our practical approach to life, have a saying that underpins the reasoning behind the themes I explored in Ogadinma: we say that the people who do not know where the rain began to beat them cannot tell where they dried their bodies.
I consider Ogadinma a love letter to my community; it is a hard conversation we must have and a reminder of where we used to be.
Ogadinma has been described as a ‘modern feminist classic in the making’. What to you makes a book a classic? And was this one of your end goals in writing the book?
It is the reader who decides what makes a classic. My immediate concern while working on Ogadinma was what my community would think of this story that takes a keen look at our culture and socialization. I was anxious and feared that they wouldn’t be happy with my invention. So I wasn’t thinking (I mean, who even does?) of framing the novel as a classic. My editors and first readers and publisher did; they saw something beautiful and declared it worthy enough to be included on this path. It’s been an honour, and I am happy with the general reception Ogadinma has received across cultures.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
The elevator pitch, or logline of the story, is often the most challenging, yet the simplest thing about writing—at least for me. Once I can describe what a story has set out to do, once I know what I am writing about (even if the plot changes), I begin to feel a lot more sure and confident about the project.
And in what ways is a second novel different from a debut novel?
I think you become a little more self-critical after the first book. My debut novel was hurriedly written and edited. I should have spent a little more time with it, but I was in a hurry to have a book out there. With Ogadinma, I became a little more introspective, and I’m taking even more time with my third.
You are the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Isele Magazine, a literary magazine. What is one thing you wish people knew about contemporary/digital African writing?
Our stories are so diverse and populated by complex characters who can’t be mashed into a single story. Our writers play with forms in beautiful ways that resist categorization.
[African] stories are so diverse and populated by complex characters who can’t be mashed into a single story. Our writers play with forms in beautiful ways that resist categorization.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
To read across genres and forms. To pay attention to the other ways people tell stories. This has been incredibly helpful. I listen to a lot of music, especially the music of the 60s and 70s and 80s Nigeria—from Perikoma Okoye to Theresa Onuorah, Nelly Uchendu, Onyeka Onwenu, Rex Lawson, and Osadebe, and so many others, who told terrific stories using the musical form. I watch many shows; I gaze at paintings; I read manuals and labels. There are often theories that inform or shape those forms; there is intent and purpose behind their positioning in the market because everything is storytelling, and creators are deliberate with how they sell their products to the world. So I read and watch and listen a lot; I do less talking. I want to believe that I have grown from these immersive experiences. And I hope that my readers will glean this when they read my current project.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Adachioma Ezeano, Ifesinachi Esther Okonkwo, Roseline Mgbodichinma, and Kasimma’s stories are breathtaking, and I can’t stop talking about their works, especially what they do with language and the way they explore relationships, community, history, Igbo cosmology and divination, and love. I think everyone should read them.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am currently obsessed with what I call postpartum interiorities. It is my current research focus. I have written about my experience with childbirth for Longreads and made an argument for postpartum stories in Isele Magazine. I think that while the maternal is heavily theorized in philosophical discourse, especially the conditions of its existence within the paternal hegemony, postpartum interiorities are rarely centralized; they are often banished to the fringes, often dismissed as ‘domestic narratives’, and so are not given the attention they rightly deserve in academia. So, I am collecting personal stories at the moment. My hope is that this research will add to the conversations about childbirth and its material impact on the mind and the body, and that it will shatter the silence this topic is often shrouded in, especially in my community.
While the Maternal is heavily theorized in philosophical discourse, …, postpartum interiorities are rarely centralized; they are often banished to the fringes, often dismissed as ‘domestic narratives’, and so are not given the attention they rightly deserve in academia.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a long critical text I tentatively call Postpartum Interiorities, which, as I explained, focuses on narratives about pregnancy, childbirth, and the various complications mothers in my community endure, including depression and physical complications like uterine prolapse.
Question from Salem Afangideh: What’s your biggest writing goal or dream?
To publish an 800-paged intergenerational novel that will track an important thread in my community’s history. I recently started reading Olga Tokarczuk’s marvelous new book, The Books of Jacob, and it has been a great inspiration. I like how patiently and meticulously she tracked the stories and the influence of the man who claimed to be the messiah. I don’t know if I have the patience for such a gargantuan endeavour, but I hope to achieve such a feat someday.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Do you draw the plots of your stories before writing them, or do you relinquish power to your characters, allowing them to direct the flow of your stories?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]