Q&As: Joshua Chizoma – AKO Caine Prize shortlist 2022

AiW note: this year, as part of our now annual AKO Caine Prize for African Writing coverage, we have published AiW Guest reviews of each of the 5 stories shortlisted for the 2022 award. Leading up to the winner announcement on Monday 18 July, we are also really happy to share a new set of Q&As – hearing from the writers on the shortlist but also from the publishers of their stories, as well as judges who have determined the shortlist this year. The aim is to open up some of the less visible avenues and labour involved in the literary prize.

Today, we speak with Joshua Chizoma, writer and currently a law student in Nigeria, whose “Collector of Memories” is published in the 2021 Afritondo Prize Anthology, The Hope, The Prayer, The Anthem (Afritondo).

Our accompanying Q&A today is with Allwell Uwazuruike, co-founder and publisher at Afritondo – see below.

Here, Joshua discusses writing and craft, real-life inspirations and uplifts and the soft underbelly that is procrastination, books and (outrageous) reading, and the mix of law studies with creative and other freelance work…

AiW: Joshua – congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Thank you for your story and for taking part in our Q&A series this year.

Could you tell us a bit about the pre-lives of “Collector of Memories” and/or how it came about? Any stories of your story that you can share – perhaps something that our readers might not yet know about (or that they should or need to know)? 

Joshua Chizoma: Something about the story that the reader might not by this time know is that a lot of the things in it are based on reality – the places are real places, some of the people are real people, and some of the things that happen are based on real events. 

For instance, the compound where Chibusonma and her family lives – the description of “two bedroom bungalows squatted in a semi-circle, huddled together like American football players before take-off” (13), that’s exactly the structure of the compound where I grew up. And the gated compound that Chibusonma and her aunts visit – “the house we went to had a huge bird on the gate. The bird split into two when the gate was opened” (23) – that, too, is based on a compound near where I lived. There was a gate like that. 

The altercation between Chibusonma’s mother and the neighbour was also based on an incident that happened. I didn’t witness it firsthand. My dad told me the story of an altercation between our neighbours and the way he described it – it was so vivid, so dramatic, it stuck with me, and I decided to eventually just put it into the story. 

Also, one of the sisters, Chidinma, is based on a relative of mine that I lost some time in 2017. Her character was the easiest for me to write because I was sort of channelling this relative and, for the most part, her essence is the same.

My relative was bold, she was brash, she was very, very generous – she had a very generous heart. The particular expression I used to describe Chidinma in the story – “Chidinma does not have, that’s why she will not give you” (17), in other words, the only way she will not give you what you need is if she does not have it – that was the phrase my brother used to describe this relative of mine. At some point I realised that I was beginning to forget about her, forget how she looked, and writing her into the story was deliberate, my own way of trying to immortalise her; maybe not not in the description of her physical features, but in her kindness and her characteristics, which, for me, formed the core of her. I wanted to preserve that. 

What would you do differently if writing under a pseudonym? 

I don’t know if there’s anything that would do differently, except maybe explore more the sexual life of Chibusonma and her boyfriend, Chike… I’m not certain, but even as it is right now in the story, I’ve had people come up to me to talk about it and how it is not exactly lurid, but out of the norm, let’s say. 

Could you tell us a bit about your (other) work — your writing and/or other kinds of work, roles, or more general and different sorts of professional hats you wear? 

In my other life, I am a law student. I’ve finished my undergrad – I studied law – and now I am studying for the Nigerian bar. I should be done in a couple of months. 

I’m also a freelance writer of nonfiction and essays. I was a contributor for afrocritik.com, a platform that offers culture, music reviews, and that sort of thing, but I have had to take a brief hiatus to focus on my studies. 

Best or most surprising things (about said other work and hats)?

What I find surprising about these aspects of my life is that the law actually does help my writing. I remember in my final year of undergrad, we were doing a course on jurisprudence, basically the legal theory or philosophy of law, having to think about all of those situations and motivations for human action, and consequences… And I find that those are the things I often think about when I’m writing, especially when I’m trying to craft characters. Because for me, it’s important for my characters to be well-rounded, for them not to be flat, and for their motivations to be rooted in their humanness. Regardless of however bad a person is, there are sides of them that can be kind; and it’s not possible for one person to be entirely kind without an atom of maybe evil in them. And so studying law actually helps me to understand human actions, human emotions, the whole works. 

And freelancing keeps me on my toes. The mechanics of writing helps me type faster, but doing all the research for non-fiction writing also helps my imagination. Sometimes I am not able to tell when some material that I came across while doing the research for a piece will come in handy for my writing. 

But then, I don’t consider my writing fiction work in the same way I consider studying or freelancing and I think that has helped give room to my fiction to breathe. There isn’t a lot of pressure for me to produce work when I’m writing fiction. I’m basically just writing for myself.

The pressure is to not miss deadlines and send in work before them, for instance, say if I’m sending in work for a competition; there is the pressure to put out work that editors and literary magazines will like. So freelancing compliments me in that it helps me develop a system; it helps me with discipline; it helps me broaden and sharpen my skills and provides me with materials, even when I am typically not aware of them.

What is the best investment you’ve made in your creative self?

In general, probably all the novels I’ve bought over the years. I’ve bought quite a number of them. Particularly in Nigeria, and I want to say Africa generally, books are very expensive. I don’t know why but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it’s  because of the cost of publishing, and especially with those writers who publish with foreign presses because of the cost of getting them into the country. To get an average African author’s work sometimes takes quite some time. And I’ve had to spend a lot.

More specifically though, in 2017 or 2018, I remember paying for a workshop, organised by the novelist T.J. Benson. At that time, I think I was in second or third year of undergrad and I didn’t have the money – it was 5000 Naira, which came down to quite something for somebody in second year of undergrad. But it turned out to be really helpful for my career, in terms of getting to meet people, making contacts, and also for me developing a relationship with T.J. Benson, which thrives to date. 

That workshop also exposed me to certain things about the craft. For instance, right now, before I fully get into writing a story, I try to get to know the characters as much as possible. Sometimes I go as far as creating a spreadsheet where I can see them all, as well as specific things about each of them. And although everything does not make its way into the story, it gives me a comprehensive view of the characters. That was something I picked up during that class. So, while it was quite expensive for me at that time, over the years, it’s proved a worthwhile investment.

Please confess any and all creative tics, overuses, bad habits.

The first, I think, will be procrastination. And I think this is something that a lot of creatives and writers have to deal with. I procrastinate a lot. I have work I’m supposed to do and I put it off.

It’s especially unhelpful at the times when I have the urge to write down a sentence or a paragraph that comes to me, maybe even fully formed. But I postpone and eventually when I sit down and try to recapture what I had in my head at that time, it just doesn’t come out right. There are some instances when I’ve had to rush through a particular work because I was trying to meet deadlines, and the only delay was as a result of my procrastinating.

Also, and I think this happens to a lot of writers, I can have multiple stories on the go at the same time. When you’re writing and you’re going with the flow, it’s all fun. But at some point, it becomes less about the fun and more about work – the point where you have to deal with plot holes, where you have to make sure that the characters are well rounded, that the story is coherent from start to finish – basically, the editing process. It can be such a downer. Sometimes when I get to that stage, I just need to work on something new so I’m enjoying the process of creation without having to worry about editing. So I have two stories on the go at the same time, not fully written, not fully formed. 

My process can also be disorganised sometimes. I write sections separately: I could write the beginning section, the middle section, the ending, and then go over and start at the beginning again. And I find out that because of the end, I’d have to change the entire beginning or cut out something in the middle. That lengthens the time within which I have to write the story because sometimes I’m fixated on it coming out perfectly. It takes me upwards of maybe three months to finish a story.

What is your writer/creator theme tune (i.e. the track that would play behind the montage section in the film of your working life, that captures your spirit when making, thinking, producing…)?

I’ll probably choose “Unstoppable” by Sia. It’s been in my head for days now. And maybe it just represents how I feel – this whole Caine Prize season; after Coronavirus here. 

Tell us a bit about your bookshelves – how they are arranged vs. how you would like them to be arranged.

I don’t have a bookshelf, so to say. But usually I stack my books with the heaviest at the bottom and then the lighter ones at the top. I have Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, I remember, at the bottom of my bookcase at the moment, because the version I have is very thick with a hardback cover, then I have piles of other books on top of it.

What do you do often before/after reading?

I don’t really do anything before reading a book, but almost in all cases, I stop midway to find out what happens in the end. I don’t really get flustered by spoilers: I usually just want to know what happens, so I google that. And then, when I’m done reading the book, I just generally try to find out about it, if it has won any awards, if there are any adaptations in the works. I google the author and try to find out about them, find them on Instagram, see if they have any other body of work, especially if I enjoy the writing. Then I read reviews, especially reviews on Goodreads, and see if I agree with them. I try as much as possible not to read the reviews before I’m done so it doesn’t colour how I see it. I try to engage as much as possible with every book I read.

What is the most serendipitous book-related thing that has happened to you? Perhaps a happy, weird accident that has occurred around books that you can share with us?

I remember this one time that I met somebody on Twitter. His moniker, his username, was a reference to a character in a book I had read recently, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I DM’d him about it and then we started talking and talking, and discussing the book, because I loved reading it and apparently he was a fan too. And we just hit it off from there. 

He eventually introduced me to the A Little Life fanpage on Instagram. And it was fun getting to meet a lot of other people who enjoyed A Little Life that much – there are people who have tattoos from the book and there’s a particular pose that people make, where you hold up the book to your face and take pictures, and I’ve seen that a lot with A Little Life. I’m excited just talking about it now. It was so cool.

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve done or would do because of, or for a book?

Growing up, in high school, secondary school, I used to read a lot of novels and I would keep them on my lap, reading them under my desk while classes were going on.

In university too, during my undergrad. I remember one time in particular that the lecturer was teaching, and I had a novel that I was reading under my desk, on my lap. And then she was there, right in front of me! And she looks at me and she says, “carry that stuff on your lap and just come to the front”. And there was no way for me to escape that. I had to list the novel in front of the whole of the class, and then she took it from me and saw to it that she got my registration number. Eventually I had to go to meet her, apologise and get the reprimand. It was a really really stupid thing to do. Because she was just right in front of me. And I could have gotten into a lot of trouble for that.

Finally, as a writer, reader, and/or otherwise in your working life, what are the most ethical and/or heart-lifting practices you’ve seen happening recently in your industry, perhaps particularly given our experiences over the last few/couple of years?

This would be the writing community. What I’ve noticed about the African literary community, especially young creatives, is the sense of  commonality that currently exists. On Twitter, for instance, you see a lot of writers looking out for each other, recommending people, recommending places to submit works and it’s heartwarming. And particularly when someone has an accomplishment — maybe they get published, or they get shortlisted for a writing competition — other writers get to celebrate them.

That is important for me and something I have really come to appreciate because, over the years, we’ve had people from the older generation make it harder for young writers to skill through and get into these spaces by themselves. But when these young people did make their way into those spaces, they decided to make it easier for others, and lend their hands whenever and however they could.

I think that is how it should be: writers who are established mentor others to hold the gates open for anybody who wants to come through. So it’s really really heartwarming, especially on Twitter, and especially for the Nigerian creative community.

Joshua Chizoma is a Nigerian writer. His works have been published or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Lolwe, AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Anathema Magazine, Agbowo Magazine, and Prachya Review. His story, ‘A House Called Joy’ won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the flash fiction category. He won the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize with his short story “Their Boy” and was shortlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He is an alumnus of the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Joshua’s short story, “Collector of Memories”, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read “Collector of Memories” here.

For our AiW Guest review of Joshua’s story, by Innocent Akili Ngulube, a lecturer and postgraduate coordinator in the English Department at the University of Malawi, “Sacks Tied Around Our Necks”, please click through direct here.

Our accompanying AKO Caine Prize Q&A today is with Allwell Uwazuruike from Afritondo, the publisher of Joshua’s story.

You can browse through our full series of “twinned” Q&As published this week – with the shortlisted writers and their publishers, as well as the judges of the Prize this year – where the aim is to open up some of the less visible labour and work involved in the literary prize and demonstrate some of the contemporary routes by which we receive the work of African writing.

And you can follow this link to read our other reviews of the 2022 shortlist, our related Q&As, and with coverage going (way) back to 2013…

The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – http://www.caineprize.com/ – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.

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