Q&A with Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike ~ Things that Matter & that Made Me

Today, we are delighted to be sharing a couple of new quickfire AiW Q&As with Nigerian writer Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, where we talk about “Things that Matter” to makers’ and thinkers’ processes and selves… 

In this case, we’re talking books and words firstly and foremostly, with an attendant community of readers, writers, thinkers – this in advance of his short story collection Double Wahala, Double Trouble, which will be out later this month and is available for preorder now from Canadian-based press Griot’s Loungeand in warm celebration of his winning the Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism this weekend past, with essays ‘Self-Publishing in the era of military rule in Nigeria, 1985 – 1999’, (Journal of African Cultural Studies, Volume 32, 2020 – Issue 2); ‘Postcolonial Ogres in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow‘ (Postcolonial Text, Vol 13, No 2, 2018 – you can read it here); and ‘Land of cemetery: funereal images in the poetry of Musa Idris Okpanachi’ (Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Vol. 55, Iss. 2, 2018). 

And that’s not all for this writer and literary critic’s late 2021… Uche’s latest children’s fiction book, Wish Maker, will be out soon with Masobe Books.

An alumnus of the International Writing Program, Iowa (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of poems. He was one of the winners in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively, and has twice been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007 and 2011.

Umezurike holds a PhD in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta. In among his longstanding, vigorous activities thinking about, discussing and sharing African literatures and literary cultures, we’ve been privileged to have Uche as a contributing author for AiW, sharing with us a formidable and fantastic range of interviews with other writers and thinkers, since way back before his postgraduate studies – we *think 2013 is the earliest….

Here, Uche shares with us some behind the scenes info about things that have mattered in the making of Double Wahala, his writing spirit, tics, tips and habits and navigating our books industries, as a writer… There’s also a “Things that matter” reading list – of the books that continue to inspire – and an excerpt from the story collection follows.

Things that matter…

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Some time in 2006, a professor told me that I should quit writing, he didn’t think that I could become a good writer. But two other professors, MJC Echeruo and Isidore Diala, encouraged me and made me believe in my passion as a budding creative writer. That same year, my short story, “Smouldered,” was one of the finalists of the 2006 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.

What’s the best investment you’ve made in your future / now creative self?
I have always been willing to learn from everyone I meet and every place I visit. This has offered me the opportunity to open myself up to and therefore acquire new experiences, new knowledge, new relationships, new cultures, and new modes of seeing the world. 

Writing this book… 

What is the earliest memory that you associate with writing this book – where, who with, when…? 
I remember the first time I read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s collection of short stories titled Secret Lives and Other Stories and Alex la Guma’s A Walk in the Night. This was a long time ago, and I was just beginning to appreciate the delight that fiction offered. This was around 1996 and 1997, during the military tyranny of Sani Abacha. 

What did you edit out of this book? 
The first draft of the book was slim and sparse, since I tend to write in economical prose, maybe because of my fascination with poetry. But, when I showed it to Ikhide Ikheloa and Kimmy Beach (my first editor), they individually urged me to develop certain scenes, characters, and actions. Then, when I was working with Kara Toews and ‘Tayo Kerede (my final editors), they wanted me to still develop the manuscript further, which I am glad I did. So, there was not much to edit out but instead something to add to the manuscript. 

What is one thing you were told during the making of this book that stuck with you most?
I remember my soulmate Chioma reminding me that everything is going to be okay. She has more faith than I do. I need to work on my faith. 

Which part of the writing was most challenging?
I enjoyed the rewrites and revisions for the most part. But I find that I always struggle with writing the first few pages. I know some writers who can write loads of pages in a week, but I think I am a slow writer and I often dabble with the stories in my head. 

Which part of the whole process  – from conception to now – has been most challenging?
I think writing in its entirety is challenging. I don’t know if there are writers who find writing easy and smooth. But it’s part of the process, the challenges, the strain and anxiety, given that everything in life is almost a challenge. Yet, there’s a particular ineffable thrill that animates the body once one gets to see their work in print. 

Is / are there a scene or scenes that are pivotal to the rest of the book, that you kept returning to? (inspired by a Twitter convo initiated by writer Tess Sharpe –  @sharpegirl)
I kept returning to the scene in the story “Rain,” where a character, Dubem, meets his death. It’s a gruesome way to die, and I have seen it happen in Owerri and Lagos. That kind of death was captured in “Smouldered,” which I earlier mentioned.  

What might you do differently in this book if it were written under a pseudonym?
Maybe, I might use a lot of swear words (laughing). 

Your writer / maker self…

What would you choose as your mascot/ avatar/ spirit animal?
I would rather be a bird, though I haven’t decided what kind of bird that is. Just the thought of soaring in the air and scanning the world beneath your wings. What’s freedom then?

What’s your writer’s theme tune (not necessarily what you listen to when working, but the tune that would play behind the montage of your processes in the film of your working life, that captures your spirit when making, thinking, producing…)?
I like Asa’s songs very much for their deep, quite-melancholic energy, and sometimes I listen to music with water sounds.  

What is your writing/productivity kryptonite /heel of Achilles / soft underbelly?
I have a weakness, I think. When I write, I binge a lot. I reach for any food I can find. I get a little cranky, and I am afraid that’s my Achilles’ heel. 

What is the thing you would give up in exchange for protection from your kryptonite / Achilles’ heel / soft underbelly?
I don’t think I want to give up anything because of my weakness. I can’t strive for perfection. What’s human if not a mosaic of strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and resilience? After all, as a creative writer, we are interested in character flaws and foibles of our protagonists as well. 

What would you choose as your most relevant / interesting pseudonym (or top three), most descriptive of what you do?

Your best powering up things in the making process (snacks, walks, trees, superfoods…)?
Snacks, any movie based on Stephen King’s books, and sunshine.

Writing, for me, is  … 
… a terribly exacting and exciting journey. Like walking uphill on a frigid sunset. 

As a reader…

How do you arrange your bookshelves? (And/or how do wish you could arrange your bookshelves?)
I am not too methodical when it comes to keeping my books well arranged, but my wife mostly helps me to put my books in order. I wish I could wave a wand or snap my fingers and the books would be stacked neatly and alphabetically. 

What are the most important magazines, journals, other publications to your processes?
Currently, I have JALA, ALT, Read Alberta, PRISM, PRAIRIE BOOKS NOW, and WESTWORD. I must commend the amazing work that online lit mags, such as Africa in Words, Isele magazine, Brittle Paper, Open Country Magazine, and Iskanchi magazine are doing for African literature.

Making memories…

What is the first thing you remember making (like, really making)?
I used to draw superheroes and create cartoons which I sold during my elementary school in Lagos.

What was the experience where you learned that language / signs / culture has power?
I was astounded and then I realised that language is the world and the world is language. 

Processes — whats, wheres, withs, and with whoms…

Please confess any and all creative tics, overuses, bad habits, &c….
I get too fussy over the first paragraph and page and then I often find myself stuck on that part. I have to learn how to trust myself and in the process of freewriting or rough drafting.

Most overused punctuation?
Comma and em dash

What one thing would you change about how you work?
Finding a way to write in bed and reminding myself to stand and stretch after sitting too long behind the computer.

Where, when, and how often do you make work?
I work anywhere, incidentally, but mostly I work on a desk at home. 

What are your writing talismans? Are there rituals, things you need (or think you need), for you to be able to create and make?
I have none, talismans or rituals. Besides, I have to juggle parenting and other professional obligations, so I barely have the luxury to engage in pre-writing rituals or incense burning.

What’s on your desk / writing space when you write?
Currently, I have A Good Name by Yejide Kilanko, Transatlantic Upper Canada: Portraits in Literature, Land, and British-Indigenous Relations by Kevin Hutchings, and The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel by Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba on my desk, some highlighters, posts-it, a sketchbook, which I recently bought because a poet Gian Marco Visconti challenged me to do some doodlings, and a gift card from Glass Bookshop, Edmonton in recognition of the recent purchases I made there between September and October. 

How many projects do you have on the go at once? How many / what % are abandoned or set aside?
I think this year’s been pretty crazy for me. I was able to complete my collection of short stories Double Wahala, Double Trouble and children’s book Wish Maker. For now, I just want to focus on my postdoctoral studies and catch as much leisure time as possible. I’m excited to be working with Dr. Clara Joseph at the University of Calgary, who has been very supportive of my research. In the meantime, we both have chapters in the forthcoming volume titled National Literatures in Multinational States, edited by Albert Braz and Paul Morris (University of Alberta Press, 2022).

Who is your most trusted reader / first respondent, and why? Do you keep them in mind when you’re in the writing process, and if so, how do they occupy those spaces?
In recent times, my poetry readers have included Chielozona Eze, Ejiofor Ugwu, Amatoritsero Ede, Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, Olajide Salawu, Peter Midgley, whereas for fiction, I have often turned to the critical eyes of Yejide Kilanko, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Kufre Usanga, and Ikhide Ikheloa.

Have you produced work as part of a collective? 
I have only co-edited a volume of poetry, Wreaths for a Wayfarer, with Nduka Otiono, though I used to be a member of the JALAA Collective that included Jude Dibia, Odili Ujubuonu, Igoni Barrett, Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, and Adunni Abimbola Adelakun. 

In your industry / field…

If you could tell your younger professional self anything, what would it be?
Travel the world, climb mountains, and idle on riverbanks

What is the most valued advice you have received about navigating your industry?
Be true to yourself, be transparent, and don’t seek to impress anybody

What do you see as the most underrated job/s in the industry, in terms of getting your work to readers’ hands? Most overrated?
The unseen labour of the proofreaders is underrated

What are the most ethical and / or heartlifting practices you’ve seen in your industry?
The support from mentors and the network and opportunities of development that come with mentorship

Chielozona Eze has been particularly supportive of me since 2007, even though we have never met in person but merely spoken on phone and exchanged emails! He has extended material support to me, as well.


Things – the books – that made me…

The life changing one…
Without a Silver Spoon by Eddie Iroh 

The one that made you read everything else they’d ever written… 
Sirens, Knuckles, and Boots
by Dennis Brutus

The childhood one…
The Drummer Boy by Cyprian Ekwensi

The one you wished you’d written…
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The one you grew to look at anew…
The Trials of Brother Jero by Wole Soyinka

The one you recommend to others most often…
Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

The touchstone one…
The Famished Road by Ben Okri 

The most gentle one…
The Phoenix by Chika Unigwe

The one you’ve engaged with / gone back to the most times…
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The one you’d like to live in…
The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

The one you are actually living in….
DisPlace by Nduka Otiono

The stranded on a desert island one (there can only be one)…
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The one that took you away…
Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila

The one that brought you here…
African Masculinities by Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell 

The most underrated one…
A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo

The binge / in-one-sitting one…
Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo

The one that politicised you / the call to arms one…
The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon

The pilgrimage one…
The Call of the River Nun by Gabriel Okara

The (first) one that made you:
– cry... A Walk in the Night by Alex la Guma
rageThe Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
laugh out loud... Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele
know you had power... Letter Home and Biafran Nights by Afam Akeh
take action (and in what shape?)... Ogadinma by Ukamaka Olisakwe
(to appreciate my daughters the more and tell them I love them everyday)
change your mind... The Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

The one on your bedside table…
A Map to the Door of No Return by Dionne Brand

The one you should have by now, but still haven’t…
African Ecomedia by Cajetan Iheka 

The one for the chat – book club / for the group one (aka the one you’ve talked about with others the most)…
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe 

The origin-story one …
Labyrinths by Christopher Okigbo

Newest...Nish’ga by Jordan Abel

Oldest…Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta

Longest…Nine East by Uche Nduka

Most surprising / unconventional …
The Strangers of Bramfontein by Onyeka Nwelue

The most gutsy…
Graceland by Chris Abani

The one that lives in your heart…
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The one that lives in your brain…
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The practical / skills-based one…
Disorientation: Being Black in the World by Ian Williams

The practical / skills-based two…
Men, Masculinities, and Earth: Contending with the (m)Anthropocene by Paul M. Pulé and Martin Hultman

The genre-bending one…
Citizen by Claudia Rankine

The head-bending one…
One Day I Will Write About this Place by Binyavanga Wainana

The scariest one…
Misery by Stephen King

The one of beauty…
Beloved by Toni Morrison

The informative one…
Why Indigenous Literatures Matter by Daniel Heath Justice

The treasured find…
Border Songs by Jim Lynch

The treasured gift…
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe

The proper geeky one…
Open City by Teju Cole

…Most surprising recommend from someone who knows you (friend / lover / teacher)
The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth

...The already-seen-the-adaptation one (and which one was best?)
The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King (the adaptation)

Any other one we missed that should be with you on your list..?
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

With our warmest gratitude, as ever, to Uche and our congratulations again…

Double Wahala, Double Trouble by Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is out later this month and is available for preorder now from Canadian-based press Griot’s Lounge. In an advance, here is an excerpt, “Flesh of my Flesh”: 

Tobe leans over and cups her cheeks with callused palms, pressing his lips against the spot between her eyes. He kisses it in a slow, feathery way, and she feels her temples quivering. 

Her back arches. 

Her breath flutters. 

A lump rises in her throat. 

Daluchi swallows and begins to feel tender, but she quickly hardens and pushes the lump back down. No, not now. Not tonight. She desires more, something more disarming than gratitude, something more abiding than his hairy body lying next to hers, his fingers drawing butterflies across her navel. She has already gone past the stage of sweet talk—of settling for less

Daluchi looks at the empty soup bowl. She could nudge the table with her foot. The sound of china breaking into pieces might comfort her. She tries to remain calm, though she imagines a sharp piece cutting into her finger and manages not to wince. She sighs and tries to focus on the moment.

Yet an old image comes to mind. It is blurry, and then it gets sharper. She is thirteen years old but taller than most boys her age. Her classmates treat her as abnormal because of her height. Boys nickname her “Yokozuna” and “Mt. Kilimanjaro,” but the girls call her “Tallie.” Sometimes, at night, Daluchi sees herself growing taller and taller like the magical beanstalk in that children’s story told in schools. Finally, she is so tall that her head punctures the roof, knocking it off completely. Everyone, including her parents, shrieks and flees in fright. Birds scatter in every direction, screeching at what she has become. 

Daluchi shudders at this horrible image. She doesn’t know why she remembers all this now or what it has to do with how she feels about Tobe. She clearly remembers jamming her foot into the crotch of one of the boys who often mocked her during break time. The boy had lain on the floor groaning, his hands tucked between his thighs, while their classmates laughed at him. 

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