Q&A: Words on the Times – Jumoke Verissimo

“A Small Silence feels like an act of literary disruption. Hypnotic, expertly crafted and full of subtle power, it challenges cultural norms around silence, darkness and solitude, leaving the reader changed in ways that are hard to define.” Irenosen Okojie, Guardian Books.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s latest review of Jumoke Verissimo’s poetic and expansively imaginative debut novel, A Small Silence, Verissimo joins us with her Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A set offered in the spirit of connection in the altering times and spaces of our current moments.

A Small Silence, out last year (2019) with Cassava Republic Press, was shortlisted for the RSL’s Ondaatje Prize this year – an annual award of £10,000 for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place:

“The atmosphere of this book was the first thing that drew me in,” said Wyld [Ondaatje Prize 2020 Judge]. “A feeling of disquiet and tension, even in the quotidian. It manages beauty and lyricism and at the same time as restraint, an impressive line to walk. It left me feeling like I had witnessed a spell of some kind.” Evie Wyld talks to Mark Chandler for The Bookseller.

Tomorrow, James Yeku will also join his Words on the Times with his review ‘A Box Full of Darkness: The Spaces of Trauma in Jumoke Verissimo’s A Small Silence‘. We also look forward to the opportunity to re-publish 2 related reviews from our archive – #PastAndPresent – in the coming days (one on Verissimo’s novel, ‘In the Dark’, from Temitayo Olofinlua published last year; and one written for us by Verissimo, of Elnathan John’s Born On A Tuesday, a review post fast approaching its fourth birthday!).

Below, Verissimo shares her experiences of working through the pandemic, what’s forthcoming, kindness, and the support offered by the love of books and music…

Words on the Times – Jumoke Verissimo.

AiW: Can you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your plans?

I write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. I have published three books; two poetry collections, i am memory, and The Birth of Illusion. My most recent work is a novel; A Small Silence and it is published by Cassava Republic Press. And if your reference to work means the project I am working on at this time, as a rule of the thumb, I do not discuss my ongoing project until it has reached a stage of no return. All I can say is that there is a novel figuring out its existence in my jotting pad and computer. I will however refer to the children’s story which is getting close to publication. It is written in Yoruba, but it will be translated in English and hopefully other languages as well. It is a story to help children understand how to deal with grief.

Besides my creative writing, I am currently enrolled in a PhD programme at the University of Alberta, in Canada, where I am working on the representation of Nigerian-Biafran War in novels, and its traumatic aftermath. As for my plans, all I can say is that they are still unfolding, and COVID-19 has only brought my attention to newer possibilities and limitations. I say this because a plan, if it is indeed meant to organise anything in one’s life, should not be rigid.

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you were not before?

Before the pandemic, I would typically drop off my daughter at her school and then face work – writing, teaching, reading, errands, meetings, “side hustles” etc. Before the pandemic, the external realities around me were in some way “certain”. I also make use of any available time to do my work. When the pandemic started, I was a little destabilized with the anxieties that followed the event and had immediate implications on my plans. I have adjusted considerably now. These days, which is the same for before the pandemic anyway, working on anything that needs my total focus means waking up really early, so that my thoughts will not be interrupted. I try to go to bed early when I can. I put my daughter to bed early so I can work late into the night, or make her sleep later, so I have enough time to work early in the morning. Thankfully, I have found a work-play rhythm, so I do as much as the day allows. I stay kind to myself.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

Personally, books and music have always been the support I need, and this has not changed. I can stand with my feet on the ground at this time because I have books to turn to. Social relations are also vital, and if anything, the pandemic has brought to my attention how important it is to value relationships.

AiW: How can our communities support you? 

I am grateful there is a community to reach out to. So all I ask, is that we remain kind to one another, and stay rooted in our love for literature.

Jumoke Verissimo writes poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. She has published two collections of poetry; i am memory won the Carlos Idzia Ahmad Prize’s First Prize for a first book of Poetry, and the Second Prize for the Anthony Agbo Prize first book of Poetry, and The Birth of Illusion was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Poetry Prize and longlisted for the NLNG Prize. She has also published a chapbook with Saraba Magazine, titled Epiphanies (2015). Her poetry has been translated into French, Chinese, Japanese, Macedonian, and Norwegian. Jumoke is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. programme in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. A Small Silence is her debut novel.

See more on the novel and get copies of A Small Silence, available at Cassava Republic.

Look out for our review of A Small Silence from James Yeku with his Words on the Times tomorrow. And for other AiW Guests’ shared experiences of now gathered so far on the blog – please see the blog category Words on the Times…

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