Author of ‘Nigeria vs the South East: The Glaring Igbophobia of the 2023 Elections’ Ernest Nweke, believes the anti-Igbo bigotry of the last election season was an experience many Igbos are familiar with despite denial and gaslighting from the rest of Nigeria: ‘Nigeria has committed so many undocumented crimes against Igbo people that the only proof that these things happened in the ways we were told they happened are in the traumas they left behind.’
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?
Our house was a house of inherited stories and hand-me-down books my mother used in school, and these were the first books I read. The culture then was to save all your textbooks and notebooks for your younger ones. My mother took this a step further by ensuring she got these books back from her younger ones when they were done using them. So in my childhood home, before I was born, she turned a cabinet with heavy glass doors into a bookshelf and added two locks on it. In this bookshelf, she stored all the books she read in secondary school. Everything from Anezi Okoro’s One Week One Trouble; to Cyprian Ekwensi’s Trouble in Form Six and The Drummer Boy; Eddie Iroh’s Without A Silver Spoon; Charles Dicken’s Bleak House; William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear; an Atlas of the world; a Geography textbook; and long-note exercise books with her writing that slanted to the left. The list was endless, and these books could be found browned and with that dusty woody smell books have when they have been left alone for a long time on a bookshelf. I read most of those books, especially the African titles. I even read some of them more than once. When I was seven, my mother who had noticed how much I loved to read, bought me my first books—a copy of One Good Turn by Chinelo Ifezulike from the Lantern series and a copy of No More Courts by Egbuna Akpa, a play. After I was done reading each book, I made her sit with me for hours while I narrated how interesting the book was. She loved it.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
If my life right now was a series of texts, it would be somewhere on the pages of Pet by Akwaeke Emezi and I would be living in Lucille with a family of friends and relations that listen. For a decade now, without intending to, I have nurtured one of the safest spaces of finely picked relationships just by gravitating towards people whose company I felt safe in. I remember reading Pet and even while knowing it was fiction—not just fiction, speculative fiction—I found a lot of the dialogue to be very relatable. I knew it was where I was, and I wished and still wish many people could get there.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
The last profound change of mind I had after reading a book was in 2022 and the book was Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. However, it was not as much a result of reading Homo Deus as it was a chain result of other books I had read coming up to that moment. Two very unlikely books that helped this shift were The Faith Explained by Leo J. Trese that I had read in 2018 and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi that I read in 2021. The Faith Explained showed me the beauty of the Christian faith I was raised in at its finest. It had logic and it was beautifully written, and I read it at a time I needed to read it. A few years later I read Freshwater and it felt like coming home. In Freshwater, everything converged, the faith of my ancestors and that of my parents, which Trese had done a good work defending and explaining to me three years earlier. Freshwater was familiar. I loved that Emezi did not commit the blunder of picking one religion and writing about it like the other religions do not affect some of us simultaneously. By the time I read Homo Deus, my questions had been answered and I was comfortable enough in my skin to say ‘these faiths, however beautiful, cannot apply to me if I don’t want them to. And if I do not want them to, the world/my world will not end.’
When I was seven, my mother who had noticed how much I loved to read, bought me my first books—a copy of One Good Turn by Chinelo Ifezulike and a copy of No More Courts by Egbuna Akpa. After I was done reading each book, I made her sit with me for hours while I narrated how interesting the book was. She loved it.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
I like to think that Arundhati Roy exists to remind the human race that how a text is written is where its power lies. The subject is important and can be helpful, but how this subject is written is what determines how powerful the text will be. I remember how I felt when I read The God of Small Things by Roy. She had a way of bringing you to your knees with each paragraph with such subtle things like ‘emphasis’ and ‘repetitions’.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I used to write, then edit. But recently, I have had to edit as I write for want of time.
What was your process for writing ‘Nigeria vs the South East: The Glaring Igbophobia of the 2023 Elections’?
I will always think of the writing I did in ‘Nigeria vs the South East: The Glaring Igbophobia of the 2023 Elections’ as ‘documenting’. It was different from anything I had ever written. Writing this piece involved taking long walks and long baths to clear my head. I was also talking to myself a lot in an effort to make sense of the piece. I did not discuss it with my friends because I needed to capture the different emotions I felt about those events as clearly and originally as possible. I dug into profiles on Twitter that I would ordinarily avoid for endangering me and my people. I needed to clearly say: ‘we do not have a victim complex, you have hurt us and continue to do so, you do not like us and here is proof for when all this is over.’
And why was it important that you examined the ethnic bigotry against Igbo people that became more prevalent in the recently concluded elections?
The bigotry of the just concluded election season was the Nigerian experience of most Igbos that the rest of Nigeria denies and gaslights. It needed to be talked about. Nigeria has committed so many undocumented crimes against Igbo people that the only proof that these things happened in the ways we were told they happened are in the traumas they left behind, the oral stories we heard at home, and the ease with which crimes like the ones committed in the last election season against Igbo get committed even in this age and time. As someone raised in a house full of many inherited stories, some of these stories being historical were about the war, about Ọsọ Abiola (when Igbo people had to flee different parts of Nigeria to Igboland in the wake of the protests of the annulment of the June 12 election), about families that got separated during these tragedies and family members that never returned from them. I felt from a very young age that there was something unfortunate about being Igbo in Nigeria. Knowing this as an Igbo person is not the difficult part, proving it is. The piece was me telling the world: ‘See what we mean when we say that Nigeria has an Igbo problem’.
How similar or different was that piece from the writing process of ‘Why We Must Remember: Our Collective Memory of #EndSARS’?
All writing documents events even when writers have no intention of doing primarily just that (like I did in the case of ‘Nigeria vs the South East: The Glaring Igbophobia of the 2023 Elections’). In this characteristic of serving as a proof of what happened, the two essays are similar. However, in every other way, they are different—and interestingly so, I must add.
The #EndSARS piece was a protest piece, a rigor mortis for a cause I cared deeply about, I wrote it with a lot of hope. I participated and hoped in the protest and was deeply hurt by its bloody end. The piece on the Igbophobia in the last election, however, was too much of an exhausted submission to be a protest of any kind. It felt closer to home. Writing the latter, I did not believe any change about our future as a people could come from my end so I was submitting necessary evidence to the people (non-Igbos who dislike Igbos for one reason or the other) who could save our nation if they wished. With the former, I believed that if I was convincing enough, I could inspire some positive change. With the #EndSARS piece I relived the good and terrible parts of seeking to get a better Nigeria with other young people from different tribes, religions, and states. However, the piece on Igbophobia reminded me all over again that being Igbo makes me the other person in the room in most parts of Nigeria.
The bigotry of the just concluded election season embodied the Nigerian experience of most Igbos that the rest of Nigeria denies and gaslights.
What inspired you to write about the memory of the #EndSARS protests?
An important election was coming up and I believed that it was my duty, as a writer, to appeal to the memory and morals of fellow Nigerians who had it in their power to elect a new leader. Also, there was a need to preserve this memory and save it from any future untruthful revisionism by documenting what happened.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
Almost one month after The Republic published ‘Nigeria vs the South East: The Glaring Igbophobia of the 2023 Elections’, I found out that it had generated a fierce argument among some readers who did not like that these things were documented and published. In the comment section on Instagram, they threatened to unfollow the publication and stop reading the works they publish. It was almost as if what was written in the piece only happened in my imagination.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Just write. As someone who doubles as an overthinker and a perfectionist, my best friend who said that to me repeatedly won’t believe how important those two words are to me.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
Currently reading Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi and I am curious to see another book try to beat it.
I knew from a very young age that there was something unfortunate about being Igbo in Nigeria. Knowing this as an Igbo person is not the difficult part, proving it is.
You also wrote an essay titled ‘We Cannot Say Big Brother Naija is Unimportant: How the Reality TV Show is Shaping the Politics of Young Nigerians’. Are you a fan of reality shows? If yes, what’s one you’ll always recommend and why?
I am not a big fan of reality shows—documentaries are more my speed—but from the few I have watched, I would always recommend Queer Eye. With how divisive our world has become, Queer Eye presents a wonderful interaction that bridges and connects people in the most unexpected ways.
What Nigerian book(s) do you think should be on everyone’s bookshelf? (and why?)
Without a second thought, Arinze Ifeakandu’s God’s Children Are Little Broken Things. Ifeakandu gave us nine extraordinarily beautiful stories that talk about ordinary human conditions as experienced by a part of our society we never want to talk about.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Minorities, minorities, minorities! Sexual minorities, gender minorities, the microcosm of the minorities of society. The more underrepresented, misrepresented and/or misunderstood, the better. I like it even more when the writing is unapologetic, does not seek to explain or appeal, and the characters are centre-stage in the plot. In writing about it you are stunned by new knowledge, in reading it you are also stunned by new information. It is all-parts rewarding.
Luckily for me, most of the writings I have seen on these subjects have been exceptionally delicious to consume. I enjoyed Arinze Ifeakandu’s God’s Children Are Little Broken Things. Everything Akwaeke Emezi has ever written that I have read has been mesmerizing. OluTimehin Kukoyi is my favourite essayist and I have found myself returning again and again to ‘What Racism Really Is’ and ‘Mothers and Men’.
What are you currently working on?
An article about colourism, misogynoir, and the different shades of anti-blackness by Black people.
Would you say that your writing—the practice and method of it—is shaped by your personal character?
In all honesty, I am not sure what my personal character is and if I should be the judge of it. However, my practice and method of writing are obsessive. I get an idea that I want to write about, and I pore over it until it leaves my hand. I work (this involves taking long walks to rethink the idea, talking to myself about it when I am alone, thinking about it while I bath, writing, rewriting, deleting and writing it again) on it as much as possible till I feel it is ready (which is whenever is its deadline for submission).
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Don’t say why but what piece of published writing do you wish you had done yourself?⎈
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