Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She received her BA in English Literature from Columbia University and her MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. She is currently pursuing an MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Mona has received numerous writing fellowships, including The Farafina Workshop (now Purple Hibiscus Trust Workshop) and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. She works as the featured columnist and editor of Lost in Lagos Magazine.
Her work has appeared in international magazines and literary journals, both in print and online. Mona lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her husband and three children. She enjoys cooking, taking walks, traveling, and working to improve childhood literacy.
What part of your biography do you think is the most crucial detail in introducing yourself and why?
At this point, it’s probably that second to last line: “Mona lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her husband and three children.” Since becoming a mother nearly 17 years ago, raising my children has been my primary focus and greatest source of joy. I’m grateful to my husband for always supporting me in my mothering, writing and everything else.
What experience or knowledge has been the greatest asset to your writing proficiency and success?
I have been fortunate to receive excellent writing instruction from a young age. I have an Ivy League undergraduate degree in English Literature and a Master’s from a top U.S. Creative Writing graduate program. I have received many writing fellowships over the years, as well. However, it was not until moving to Nigeria as a 38-year-old wife of a Nigerian man and mother of 3—with all the adaptation and commitment that shift entailed—that I found the confidence I needed to make my writing public and believe in my voice.
What type of books do you enjoy reading?
I love to laugh so I gravitate toward humorous works. I always love to indulge in the authors I read as a child, no matter the quality, so still enjoy detective novels and horror stories. As an Indian woman, I’ve read a lot of South Asian literature and as a naturalised Nigerian citizen, I’ve done the same ever since falling in love with my Nigerian husband as a teenager. Reading books set in India or Nigeria allows me to immerse myself in language, diction, culture and tradition from the comfort of my own home. I also love Victorian literature. Rich and evocative memoirs are also a favourite.
Who are your top 5 Nigerian authors?
This is impossible to answer because I could pick a few dozen top Nigerian authors! Instead, I’m going to share five works that have spoken to me. They are the ones I’ve continued to think about long after reading them. In order, I’ve picked two short story collections comprised of classic tales in elegant, spare prose; a beautiful and evocative nonfiction book that explores Nigerian cuisine and culture; a quirky blog that has made me laugh until I can’t catch my breath; and an apocalyptic short story set in my Lagos stomping grounds.
What is your greatest literature-related accomplishment, and why?
My greatest literature-related accomplishment may be going back to school in my mid-40s to study Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford. My mind is not as sharp as it was when I was last studied, and I am far busier. I travel to Oxford every few months for coursework and research. Earlier this year, I wrote an interdisciplinary academic essay on punitive expeditions in India and Nigeria, through the lens of Victorian literature, history and art history. It is fulfilling to master new forms of expression, then use them to articulate the things you care about.
What are your writing/literature-related goals for the next 5 years?
I will continue working as featured columnist and editor of Lost in Lagos Magazine because I love my job and my colleagues! In addition, I am in the midst of re-writing my memoir collection with the support of my New York-based literary agent. In 2021, I will complete my graduate school dissertation, finishing the last requirement for my MSt degree. Meanwhile, I am establishing a memoir writing prize for Lagos writers. I plan to write more books and mentor more young Nigerian writers, as well.
How has Nigeria been a part of your writing and writing experience?
Nigeria is the source of all the best things in my life, like my husband and children! When my husband suggested we leave our comfortable, suburban life in New Jersey in 2011 to relocate to Lagos—where he had last lived as a boy—I began to write. I wrote through my anxieties and pain of losing the community I loved where I bore my young children. Moving to Nigeria gave me loads of material, even though much of that writing came from a place of hurt. Once we moved and I settled into a new, happy existence, I began publishing my essays and connecting with other Nigerian writers. Then in 2017, I began working at a Nigerian lifestyle magazine. I particularly enjoy visiting local schools and helping students with their writing. I love children and am invested in improving the literacy of our youth.
What about Nigeria made it home to you?
Nigeria is where I live. It’s where I work. It’s where my husband’s people come from. It’s where my father-in-law is buried. It’s where I’ve sunk roots, raised my children and begun the bittersweet process of sending them out into the world. In 2017, I became a Nigerian citizen. I’m a Nigerian now. These are the things that make a place home, aren’t they?
What is the best advice you have received or wisest words that have guided your writing?
The advice was from my dear friend, Yewande Omotoso, the South-African-based novelist whom I met in Chimamanda Adichie’s writing workshop in 2012. Yewande’s dad is Nigerian and her mother was from Barbados. Perhaps this is why she had such sensitivity to the struggles I faced in adapting to life in Lagos as the foreign-born wife of a Nigerian man. One day, I described my hopelessness around writing. How could I write about Nigeria when I was not from here? She brushed my concerns aside. “This is your life,” she said, kindly, “and no one can stop you from writing about it.” Just like that, clarity. I could write about my experiences in Nigeria because they were mine. Even though I may never speak my husband’s family’s languages, Itsekiri or Urhobo, or cook him Banga soup like his grandma did, I did not need anyone’s permission to make my art.
Why did you say yes to the SprinNG Women Authors Prize, and what value do you hope it will add to the current status of literature in Nigeria?
I am happy to be able to give back to the literary community, and as a woman, a writer and an immigrant to Nigeria, I hope my perspective will be valuable to the judging process. Everything is more difficult from Nigeria, but it’s what makes us strong. Artists in Nigeria face special challenges, and for women, the difficulties are multiplied. I hope we can bring attention to the winner and finalists of the prize, helping them to sell more books, build their brands and multiply their options. Let’s give the winner of the SprinNG Women Authors Prize our utmost support to boost their success.
4/9/2020 10:50:05 am
I feel this interview is a must read for every young writer owing to the fact that Mona did not allow her nationality or relocation hinder her writing but materialized the information and experiences into great creative writing.
5/9/2020 10:37:37 pm
It seems to me as though Mona is a free spirit, and an amazing one at that. I do especially love the part of the interview where she talked about her favourite literary pieces.
There is so much heart in this interview. I think it takes both power and vulnerability to make a home out of place you once described as foreign. Mona has given herself permission to explore, permission to be woman. She has realized something most of us are still having trouble with and that is, we should never allow ourselves or others to downplay our experiences or call it inauthentic. Mona realizing that not knowing how to cook Banga doesn't make her less of a Nigerian or the wrong person to tell a Nigerian story is the reason I am going to write all the stories I thought I was unqualified to write. I am never second-guessing my imagination or my lived experiences no matter how little, that is what reading this interview did for me.
20/2/2022 12:41:02 am
Shared this interview with my kids. This woman's self respect and respect for husband is inspiring.
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