Interview with Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Author of The Son of The House By SprinNG (Uduak Akpan and Oyindamola Shoola)
Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Son of the House, published by Penguin Random House South Africa and Parresia Publishers, Nigeria, and forthcoming in 2021 from Durndurn Press in North America, Europa Editions in the UK, and Edizioneo in Italian. It won the Best International Fiction Book Award at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2019 and was named a Top Ten Fiction Book by Channels Book Club.
Cheluchi is a lawyer and academic who has done extensive work on health, gender, and other social sector issues. An advocate, she is the founder of CHELD, a nonprofit that does considerable violence against women and girls and mental health. She holds a doctorate in Law from Dalhousie University, Canada and a First-Class degree in Law from the University of Nigeria. Her writing has appeared most recently in The Johannesburg Review of Books and Entropy.
She is currently working on her second novel.
Purchase The Son of the House: The print version will return in stock June of 2021 in Nigeria but the e-book is currently available for N2,000 only on Okadabooks.
1. In your speech at The Future of Health Conference organized by the Nigeria Health Watch in 2017, you described the story of your interest in health law during the HIV/AID pandemic of the 1980s. With conviction, you talked about finding a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in Health Law, Ethics, and Policy from Dalhousie University, Canada.
As a child, I was a voracious reader, and I loved stories. I always imagined that I would be a writer before anything. I wrote several short stories and then my first novel at the age of 15, though it was never published. Studying law was a second choice partially because I did not really know how to go about writing as a profession. Law seemed the closest thing to writing, and that’s how I ended up a lawyer. Afterward, during my doctoral studies, I went back to writing, working on several short stories and a novel, even as I worked on my doctoral thesis.
2. Like yourself, we have met individuals who have other professions by the day and are writers at night.
I don’t think there are any deliberate attempts to link the two. However, I will say that law, particularly in health law, is based on stories, dilemmas, and conflicts. Personal issues related, for example, to old age, which I am writing about in my second book, or reproductive health, which comes up peripherally in The Son of the House, have legal implications, linkages, and consequences.
As to the time my writing takes up, amongst other things, I would say it is small, at least by comparison to what I desire. The rest of my life – work, volunteering, mothering, managing a household, other personal pursuits – takes considerably more time than my writing. I keep imagining this will change from year to year, but so far, not yet.
3. You are no stranger to winning prizes for your book, The Son of The House. In a brief interview with Channels Television, after winning the 2019’s Shariah Book Fair’s Best International Fiction book, you said, “I am quite surprised, pleasantly so, that I won an award. And I was also surprised to find that I was the only female. I think obviously it is an honor. Especially as a woman, you want to see more and more of us get up there and get these awards.”
4. You won the first SprinNG Women Authors Prize, an award that is intentionally dedicated to solving the lack of women’s representation in the publishing industry.
The prize is a most welcome idea, providing a platform of success to female writers across the country, and I applaud SprinNG for conceiving the idea. I think it would be helpful for other literary platforms to consider mentorship programs for female writers, scholarship opportunities to residencies where they can meet and exchange ideas with other writers, and better promotion of work by female writers. We need to include more female representation in the curriculum, from primary schools to secondary schools to higher institutions, to instill confidence in upcoming female writers and broaden our horizons.
5. We talk a lot about acknowledging female Nigerian Writers and giving them their flowers, especially at home. While the fight is still to get more opportunities and awards recognizing female Nigerian writers, we don’t often ask them how they would like to be recognized. Even the chairs of several recognition platforms are hosted by men, lacking female contribution and visions. So, when we created and planned the SprinNG Women Authors Prize, it was important to establish something for women and managed by women.
I will be honest and say that this has not been my focus because I am really busy and because I see room for growth in my output, and I have long-term goals that I am working on achieving. I also have to admit that I think of my identity as a Nigerian writer as a positive: I bring perspectives that I think add to the conversation of what it means to be human in the world, and this is informed my unique identity as female, Nigerian, African.
6. Still, in your interview with Channels Television, you said, “I faced quite a bit of rejection in the course of my journey to this place. So, it is extremely thrilling for me to be standing here with this award, giving all that I passed through to get this book out to the world.”
I had many rejections – from agents and publishing houses, including Nigerian publishing houses. It would have been easy to give up on the book, really, given the number of ‘nos’ that I received. There was little feedback, as is often the case. However, I really believed in the story. When I took time off from work and came back to it with fresh eyes determined to be critical and even dismissive, I found instead that the characters and their stories moved me, spoke to me. And, as someone who has always been first a reader, then a writer, I knew there was something there, something that needed to be shared with the world. So, I kept chugging on and praying and sending it out until I got accepted by my publishers. The reader's report from Penguin was so amazing that I knew that there would be others out in the world who would love this book too.
7. The Son of the House is a story focused on the lives of two Nigerian women from different classes and how their fates intersect when they're kidnapped.
Real-life inspired the story. I think back to all the young girls and women who served as help when I was growing up and even today, to my mom’s friends and other women I knew growing up, and I see tinges and hues of them swirling through the book. The kernel of it came from a real-life story my mom told me.
I would love the reader to experience different places and live inside the world of my characters, which, as it happens, might not be very different from theirs. I explore the themes of class and culture, gender, and desire in a hopefully non-didactic way. The hope is that it speaks to my readers, moves them, and causes them to think.
8. Our several identities influence our writing.
My identity as an Igbo woman is front and center in this book. The stories are primarily that of Igbo women living in a certain milieu, with certain understandings. That said, many women from other cultures can relate – the place of singleness, the revered place of marriage, fertility, and infertility, were and in some cases continue to be key life-changing matters.
9. As part of 2021’s Women History Month’s engagements, you spoke at the International Women’s Day Organized by Comercio Partners. The topic was “Choose to Challenge – Striking a balance and surmounting the Gender Bias: Politics, Workplace, and Home.”
I have and will always believe in the equality of the sexes. I have always believed that we are all equal and must have similar opportunities to resources, education, power, and leadership to navigate the world to our benefit and advantage. I can’t think of a time when I did not think of this as a child and growing up. My work in health, gender, and other social sector issues bear this conviction.
It would be hard for me to choose really amongst the areas, but I have worked extensively on gender-based violence issues, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape, and FGM, in part because it gets to the core of inequality, the use of brute force and reliance on grotesque interpretations of culture to subjugate.
10. Let’s get personal. You inspire us a lot. Before getting to know you as a result of the SprinNG Women Authors Prize, the only other person who has made us feel empowered likewise is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. What we see you doing uniquely is juggling multiple careers and responsibilities in different industries. Your ability to juggle many interests, identities, passions, and responsibilities is impressive.
I long to be all of myself, and I try to work at this. I have always wanted to tell stories for as long as I can remember, so writing and storytelling are essential parts of me. I consider myself blessed by God with a good brain. I love the work that I do as a health lawyer and as an advocate in the areas of gender, mental health, etc. I consider it meaningful so that it’s really not just work. I am ambitious, have always been, so although I don’t love work more than anyone else, and sometimes not as much as others (lol), I like succeeding and proving things to myself. I love my children, and I love being a mother. And, yes, I admit that it can be harder than all the other things combined!
So, what does one need? Many of the usual things: self-motivation and encouragement, patience (needed in spades for writers!), some balance (ok, not always successfully), resilience, and God’s help.
That said, I have had and continue to enjoy a lot of moral support over the years, from my father, who always acted as I could do anything at all and who supported my academic zeal, to my mother, who is a fierce, resilient being and who pushes me to do the work necessary, to my husband who has given me much support and as I said in the book, dreams even bigger dreams than I do for myself. I have few close friends who love me and support me in so many different ways. As with most people, I have benefited from the success of others and knowing that most goals are attainable.
11. SprinNG works with many young writers in several initiatives and collaborations. Many of these writers share experiences of being discouraged from their writing pursuits. Hence, we work tirelessly to create a well-rounded support system and model institution to ensure the success of their voices.
Very important question. Back when I finished my first novel at 15, I wish I had a platform like SprinNG. There were very few outlets to get mentorship, understand the possibilities, or be linked with writers' opportunities. So, I completely applaud what you are doing for younger writers today.
I am a believer in making the best of things. In part, because I did not get the support initially, I went in the direction of law, and I am thankful for the impact I have made and continue to desire to make in that area. That said, I am happy that younger writers, with the benefit of the internet, and platforms like SprinNG amongst others, can work harder on their craft, have mentors, be encouraged, be exposed to what others are doing, and push forward in their dreams.
12. One of my favorite quotes about purpose is by Caroline Myss. She once said at a SuperSoul interview with Oprah, “You know you are on the right path, here is your clue – you are not put in a position to betray yourself. You don’t betray yourself anymore. You are not put in a position where you feel like you have to negotiate your sense of integrity, which is an act of betrayal - your heart, an act of betrayal. You don’t feel like you gave to compromise who you are. It feels right!”
- What is your purpose or mission in this world? Do you think you are on the right path, and how does writing tie into it?
My purpose in the world is to make every place I touch better, to bring light and compassion. My faith as a Christian strengthens this conviction. I know that I am on the right path in the various spaces I inhabit as a human in this world and not because one always makes the right choices, but because there is always room for growth, for change in a positive direction. My writing aims to share what it means to be human in the world and hopefully entertain while encouraging thought and perhaps even change.
13. We hope The Son of the House becomes a book included in school curriculums in Nigeria and abroad.
I like to think that The Son of the House continues a conversation that needs to be had in Nigeria and other contexts – the place of women, the complexities of culture, history, lineage, and where justice lies in these and important questions of class. I really would like more questions asked about class in light of increasing inequality and poverty. Although these are weighty issues, I think The Son of the House tackles them in a manner that is not simply didactic. It is first a story that hopefully lends itself to feelings, then, perhaps, thinking.
14. Tell us about your writing process.
It was a gradual process. I had to write, like many writers, amidst the juggling of daily life. I wrote some parts early in the morning, some late at night, others in the middle of meetings. I had several rewrites and moving of things here and there. In terms of plot, no. I hardly ever start with a full plot in mind, but I had an essential idea, which was fleshed out as I moved on.
15.The Son of the House won awards.
16. It is no secret that a good writer is a good reader.
I read almost anything, fiction, non-fiction. However, I read more literary fiction these days. I read every day, though not as much as I used to or want to – so much to do.
The last book I read by a Nigerian female author is Yewande Omotosho’s The Woman Next Door.
17. The book’s ending is a cliffhanger of some sort.
18. Is fiction writing something you intend to do for a long time?
19. The SprinNG Women Authors Prize
It means so much that it is a Nigerian prize. As you know, prizes are a great platform for writers looking for their books to be seen amongst the many books out there. I can imagine being the first line of a long list of shortlisted and prize-winning women who go on to do great things in the world with our writing, supported by this platform.
20. The Future.
I hope to have several more books in my name.
One never quite knows what their legacy will be, but I hope that it includes realistic portrayals of what it means to be, live in our world, and maybe even change it for the better.
About the SprinNG Women Authors Prize:
The SprinNG Women Authors Prize (#SWAPng) selects a Nigerian Female Author annually - someone who has published a full-length book in print and invests at least N100,000 in purchasing, distributing, and marketing copies of her book nationwide through our sister literary websites and events whom we collaborate with. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut novel, The Son of the House won the first prize of N200,000.
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