‘I know now that stories are infinite and everywhere,’ Wana Udobang says. ‘Some stories are urgent, some aren’t, there are always new stories to tell. This is part of my liberation practice: that life is infinite.’
With over 15 years of a trailblazing storytelling career across journalism, performance poetry, filmmaking and TV, Wana Udobang is one of the poets who revitalized the Nigerian poetry landscape in the last decade. But before she found success as a poet, she began as a freelance features producer with the BBC World Service, and the first editor of Bella Naija. Her oeuvre includes freelance work for the likes of The Guardian and Al Jazeera; a decorated career in radio; Culture Diaries, an archival project; three spoken word albums. She has dedicated the better part of the past two decades to addressing cultures of violence and shame in Nigeria, particularly the impact of these cultures on the lives of Nigerian women.
Last month, Udobang’s travelling art exhibition ‘Dirty Laundry’ had its final Nigerian run at the Shehu Musa Yar’adua Centre in Abuja. Dirty Laundry has been a project in progress since the beginning of Udobang’s poetry career (Dirty Laundry is the name of Udobang’s debut album released in 2013) and has served as an infrastructure of care in its own way, creating an exhalatory space where Nigerian women can say ‘me too’. ‘Storytelling for me is about connection. I was seeking belonging and a place in the world […] I want people to feel a sense of release, to experience some level of freedom when they come to my work,’ Udobang told me in February over a WhatsApp video call.
I spoke to Udobang about the power of re-imagining personal and collective histories, the Nigerian creative/cultural industry, and her role in shifting the culture towards greater levels of vulnerability and accountability. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Back in 2017 when you started your career as a journalist, what was your hope for your career? Why did you become a storyteller?
As a kid, I had a very strong sense of justice and originally wanted to be a lawyer. Then as a teenager, when my parents were getting a divorce, I went to court with my mother a few times. There, I saw that alongside the unjust things happening to people around me, the legal system was shambolic and equally unjust. So, I turned to journalism because I had a lot to say, and I was articulate about the things I had to say. People around me always asked about me choosing journalism, ‘excuse me, how are you going to eat?’, and so my basic dream became ‘Father Lord, I just want to do this thing that I like and be able to take care of myself.’
Luckily, I studied journalism in an art school, the University of Creative Arts, and we studied journalism in an artistic way that opened my mind up to a plethora of things and expansive ways of telling stories.
And growing up as a storyteller (and as a Nigerian woman), who were the people that inspired or influenced how you carved your path?
Growing up, I didn’t have time to think about those things because it was a very dark period of survival. So, things like inspiration did not occur to me. Rather, play and humour saw me through childhood. Inspiration started for me in adulthood and my mother is a huge one. She is a very get-on-with-it kind of person—if you really want to do it, make it work.
In terms of creative inspiration, I remember when I started writing poems and I watched Bassey Ikpi perform ‘Homeward’ on Def Poetry Jam. I felt a huge connection to it, not just because she was Nigerian—and from the South South like me—but also because it was the first time I saw poetry that was very relatable being performed that way.
I am very drawn to people like Solange who embody a sense of creative freedom, people who say, ‘today I’m performing at the MoMA, tomorrow I’m composing an opera.’ Often, it’s not even about their work itself, but their way of working; I’m drawn to people’s energies.
I love how in a 2020 interview, you revealed you were ‘becoming increasingly interested in how memory can become a foundation for re-imagination’. And in the following year, you announced your ‘Reclaiming the Tongue’ project, which is an endeavour to retrace our (African) participation and agency in the making of our food cultures, amidst other factors such as climate catastrophes, forced and voluntary migration, invasions, wars, colonization and border creations over the past centuries.
What new (re-)imaginations about African food and African history did the project leave you with?
On trauma and memory in particular, the project showed me how perspective can shift things. You can have memories that are very dark and tumultuous, but they can also be a base or framework for you to create something new, for you to take those memories and decide what they’re going to be. We aren’t always stuck in the ways that we think we are.
And this translates beyond the academic and creative part of the project, and into the personal nature of living. For example, with the Comfort Food workshop from which the project came, every session has been tear-filled. Sometimes, workshop participants would recall horrendous or sad things through a piece of fruit or a meal, and in that space, they are called to write their way out of the pain they are experiencing. So, the project becomes not just about memory as a thing we can dig into but also a thing you can transform.
This energy of channelling freedom through what is at hand flows through your work. It reminds me of your CNN article ‘My body went viral twice’, where you wrote that ‘[you] have been able to see [your] body as both physical and metaphysical material, form and content, object and subject; a conduit for sharing and channeling creativity.’ Elsewhere, you’ve referred to your body as ‘part of your vocabulary.’
Why has it become important for you to approach your work wielding your body in this manner?
My body is the thing that goes through all my experiences. In my relationship with my body, sometimes, my body is a living thing that takes me through experiences. Other times, it is this inanimate thing that serves as a repository for stories—love, loss, abandonment, friendship, etc. The poet, Titilope Sonuga, says that the writing starts from inside your body and when you perform, the writing goes back to the source.
Personally, I have had many things happen to me because of my body and I have had very many physical things happen to my body, from sexual molestation to efforts at taming my fat body. I have never been able to run away from my body. When you spend a little time with yourself, you realize that things are always pouring out of your body. The body is brimming.
Looking at the turnout for ‘Dirty Laundry’ across cities, the audience was predominantly female. How do men interact with, and respond to, your work? Are you interested at all in speaking to them, and if so, what do you hope they may leave your work with?
So, I never create work thinking about whether I’m making this for men or for women. But I remember when I was working on my first short film, Shrink. It was about a fat woman having trouble accepting herself. Three of my male filmmaker friends said the film was impossible to make and that whoever told me to make this doesn’t like me. But then the film came out and so many women reached out to me and that was one of the first times I realized that my work connected with women in particular.
I also started to understand that there’s a nuance in women’s experiences of the in-between things that men may not understand or understand the significance of. They come to my exhibitions and when they see the visual effect on their female partners, or their sisters, they are confused.
And maybe, it’s not that they don’t understand but that they have not been allowed to express themselves, so they struggle with allowing themselves to feel or express what they see in my work. The work also implicates them as well and accountability is a hard space.
But there is one poem on my second album, ‘Dear Father’ , that men connect to a lot. It addresses the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. The idea of a Nigerian fatherhood is very structured around providing and many men don’t really get to learn much from their fathers. So while the poem was about physical abandonment, I think it recalls in men their feelings of loneliness or emotional abandonment. It’s this wiring around masculinity that we then see manifest in Twitter arguments around cooking soup. Meanwhile, what the man is trying to say is that he doesn’t feel like you love him.
Regarding Dirty Laundry, one man told me: ‘I walked out of that room a different man.’ I hope that when men experience my work, they become a bit more empathetic and emotionally intelligent in their dealings with women and with themselves.
Looking back at yourself ten years ago when you released your debut album Dirty Laundry, what’s something you no longer believe in?
That these things are a do-or-die affair. I know now that stories are infinite and everywhere. Some stories are urgent, some aren’t, there are always new stories to tell. This is part of my liberation practice: that life is infinite.
Another thing I no longer believe in is wanting people to get me. Please don’t waste your time doing that. Yes, I’ve always done the things I wanted to do but I think I could have done without the mental agony that came from not getting the results I wanted or expected. Part of why I feel this way now comes from being in the industry for a long time. The time gives you more clarity around the smoke and mirrors, around the politics of the system. I always say, for example, that getting a book deal is not about who’s the best writer. It’s about who your agent is and what stories the agent can sell.
Having been active in the Nigerian creative and cultural scene for 15 years now, how do you see the evolution of the industry? What collective dreams have you seen come true? And what are your hopes for the industry’s future?
One thing is that there is more interest in the creative industry and so a bit more value—monetary and attention-wise—is being attached to our work. This value is not where I want it to be because you still have people pricing creatives like fish in the market. But audiences are growing bigger and so more people want to pursue creative careers and are able to do so.
I would like for more people to be able to earn enough to live off this work and to get serious with the intellectual property of things and business structures around creative work. I hope that more creatives can value the work they are doing even more and understand that there are multiple spaces your art can get you into. As a visual artist, there is space for you in product design, animation, robotics, and more. I want us to expand our own horizons of what is possible in how we move through the world⎈
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