Ukamaka Olisakwe grew up in Kano, Nigeria, and now lives in Vermillion, South Dakota.
In 2014, she was named one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40 by the UNESCO World Book Capital for the Africa39 project. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary fellowship in Writing from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In 2018, she won the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Emerging Writer Scholarship for the MFA in Writing and Publishing program. In 2021, she won the SprinNG Women Authors Prize for her novel, Ogadinma.
A finalist for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, she has had her works appear in the New York Times, Granta, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, Rattle, Waxwing, Jalada, Brittle Paper, Hunger Mountain, Sampsonia Way, and more.
Her books include Eyes of a Goddess (2012) and Ogadinma (2020). She is currently working on her third book.
Many young Nigerian writers contemplate what to pursue as their academic degrees. However, they are faced with a more significant dilemma if they are interested in creative writing or anything in the arts. Worse, because of the current academic structure, they are faced with the limitation of studying only what’s offered or available to them at universities. So, why did you study Computer Science at University, and how did that pursuit influence your writing?
Answer: I went for Computer Science because it was the only interesting science course I could fit into at that time. It was in 2002, and I had just gotten married and moved from Kano to Aba. I had studied English and Geography at the Federal College of College in Kano. I earned a distinction in the first year and was awarded a state scholarship that comes with a cash prize and full tuition. But then I left all that for marriage because I was intrigued by the idea of moving into my “own” home, starting a new life far away from the scrutiny of my very protective and religious parents, and raising a family. However, I still needed a degree or its equivalent, and Abia State Polytechnic was the closest higher place of learning to our home. So, I chose Computer Science.
I didn’t go for the arts because I never really was encouraged to join the arts. In secondary school, the notion was that arts students were the least smart ones, and I wanted to prove a point. I always wanted to prove a point. So I joined the sciences and hated it. I hated studying Computer Science, too, because, back then, we didn’t have functional computers at the polytechnic, and we mainly studied ancient DOS prompts and FORTRAN programs. We wrote our programs on sheets, never tested their functionality on a computer, and regurgitated those on exam sheets. I don’t remember most of what we studied; however, I loved the community we fostered. I guess the community was what kept me going. I remember that at my wedding party (the church wedding), my cohort brought me these amazing gifts and created a beautiful scene. I was heavily pregnant with my first child (I gave birth one month later), and I had never danced so heartily. When I think of studying for that course, all I remember are the people–the laughter, the songs, the dance, the colorful dresses my cohort wore to my wedding party. That sense that even though I was married, I still belonged to a group that I called my own people, something so different from the confines of marriage. That group gave me a new sense of belonging, a community in which I could be a teenager, in which I could be imperfect, unlike the faultlessness that the institution of marriage—god, how I hate that word, institution—expected of me.
You have an interesting story about when your senior colleague first spotted your talent. Who or what equipped you to acknowledge your talent and pursue your gift of writing?
Answer: I like to call that my rebirth. I worked as a customer service officer in a local bank and received an email from a senior colleague whose email demanded my response. I think I rambled a lot in that email, but the colleague saw a spark or something close to it and replied to ask if I was a “writer.” I said I wasn’t, and he insisted that I was and made it his job to demand daily responses—narratives about how my day went; sometimes religious and philosophical musings about themes I didn’t really care about, but which I passionately responded to, because I didn’t want to offend.
At first, it was infuriating, but over time, I found that the prompts kept me busy when the banking hall was empty. And they got me thinking, imagining, and even interrogating my reactions to incidents I didn’t usually give thoughts to. He loved the responses and shared them with the staff on his email chain. I took those responses seriously; it was performative, and I was shamelessly becoming a show-off, but at some point, I realized that it helped with my day; it gave me something to look forward to. I paid attention to the way people spoke. I became more observant of my surroundings, which was refreshing, reflective, and pleasantly stimulating. I gathered the fragments I could find from my day and stitched them into something coherent, which I began to love.
That was in 2009. I published my first short story a year later in Sentinel Nigeria.
Often, many people assume that Ogadinma, is your first book. Usually, this assumption stems from the fact that there is an 8-years gap from the release of your first book, Eyes of a Goddess. So, where were you or what was happening in your professional, academic, and writing career when you released the first book?
Answer: Between those years, I wrote short stories and essays. I wrote a 100-episode TV show for Africa Magic that drained me and then spent the next two years recuperating from that. I couldn’t produce a complete manuscript because of all those activities until toward the end of 2017.
And the time it took to produce a manuscript was a healing and learning period. In 2016, I represented Nigeria at the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, where I joined thirty-two other writers from around the world. It was a commonwealth of knowledge, a communal well of thoughts. The cultural exchange would go on to stir new ideas in me. It was rejuvenating, something precious that helped open the doors in my mental attic and sowed the seeds that later became OGADINMA.
How did the success of the release of Eyes of a Goddess inform your re-introduction with Ogadinma in 2020? Notably, with what you know now in terms of skills, expertise, research, and knowledge, if you could do anything different with your first book, what would it be?
Answer: I would have been patient with the first book and taken much time editing it, but I wanted to have a book to my name, and I was desperate. I rushed through the first draft, found a publisher who was in a hurry as I was, and the first novel was born. I guess the flaws that beauty carries today are why I am so self-critical and deeply anxious. I take my time these days, which is perhaps a good thing.
You have said, “I write poetry because it’s the only language the girl I carry inside speaks.” Should we hope to see more of the girl inside in the future, or is she currently working on something in the genre?
Answer: I think there will be a collection in the future, perhaps a body of work that explores a central theme. I hope so. We’ll see.
Often when young writers look up to their favorites and desire to be like them or write like them, they are more curious about the craft than the process which creates the art and can be fundamental to their development. What is your writing process like for different genres? What is your writing scenery or space, and where do you go when you need to write?
Answer: I mostly write on my bed and sometimes have music playing softly in the background. My writing space—the bedroom—is often littered with books because I am that writer who reads when she is working on a project. I look for prompts in other books. I seek out beautiful languaging. I look out of my window a lot to listen to the sounds from the streets, to catch a phrase here, and glean a dialogue there. I listen to how people talk to each other and realize that we speak in fragments, in incomplete lines, in stutters. Real-life conversations are not always neat and complete, except when people have formal dialogues or deliver speeches. So yeah, all of these are part of my writing space.
THE BODY CONVERSATION
In your essay, “After Three children, Reclaiming My Body and My Mind,” You make a connection between marriage, postpartum depression, and the legacy of patriarchy. Recently, especially with the influence of social media, there has been a wave of “body positive” activists leading discussions from postpartum care to health, weight, and more. With these discussions coming to light through your writings, do you think patriarchy still strongly influences and gatekeeps postpartum care today?
Answer: Yes, it does. It is in the way we prioritize the man’s feelings over the woman’s mental health; the way we tell a woman to “snap back,” to become appealing again, so that the man would not “look outside.” For example, one of the items in my hospital bag was a girdle, which the women in my immediate community said I must wear from the second day to help return my body to what it used to be. Aba had (and still has) a thriving clothing section where the traders sell imported girdles for new mothers. It would have been great if the notion behind this industry had focused on the woman’s recuperation and how she wants to treat her body after childbirth, not what the man wants.
I want to believe that things are changing. We have honest conversations. Men are actively joining these conversations, which is a good thing.
With your platform, The Body Conversation, you sustain discussions on motherhood, postpartum care, and support. You have shared how you benefitted from the Igbo postpartum care, Omugwo. With exposure to science and new knowledge, do you think some of the otherwise beneficial traditional practices like the wooden stool should continue? What collaborations, separations, or changes do you believe should continue with key traditional components like Omugwo and modern OB-GYN care, including its technologies?
Answer: I think the stool practice is atrocious and dehumanizing. A mother who suffered an episiotomy should not be forced to sit on hard surfaces; it’s absolute torture and becomes downright vile when the caregiver says it’s to hasten your healing so you can return to your husband’s bed. I felt a lot of anger, but over time, I understood that the women who suggested the stool did so because the women before them insisted on it, and so did the women before those women, an endless circle that prioritizes men’s pleasure.
We have excellent omugwo practices, though, which western OB-GYN care can glean. Our women offer psychological and spiritual care that is sometimes lacking in our hospitals, and we do not leave the women all by themselves. We offer care that lasts for at least three months. We recommend meal plans that help with colic and lactose intolerance and gas. There is so much to learn from our omugwo practices; there are a few things we can do right too.
You recently shared in a quote tweet that postpartum interiorities is one of the topics you can talk about for 30 minutes. Has sharing lived experiences contributed to garnering support for women with postpartum challenges? Whose help do you believe is most important for postpartum care women need and why?
Answer: I think every support a new mother receives is important. In my hometown, a new mother is often surrounded by women who have had children and those who do not, all of whom offer love and care and the support the new mother terribly needs. These women take care of the home. They bathe the mother and her baby. They cook for her. They prepare her sitz baths and offer even spiritual care—all these matters.
Sometimes, though, the mother suffers complications that we shroud in silence and clothe with the language of shame. We talk about them in whispers, and the mother feels the shame in her bones. She endures in silence. The mind becomes a prison, and the mother deposits so much in that mental confinement because it is the only way that she can function, the only way that she can psychologically deal with what happened to her body. I have told this story many times, and I can’t seem to walk away from it yet. Perhaps I have not told it in full; perhaps it is because I am still untangling the concept of shame. This idea that a mother who needed help during childbirth to bring her baby to the world, who did not “naturally” push out her baby like “the women of Hebrew” without medical intervention, who suffered partial or severe uterine prolapse, and so on, is not “woman enough” or a “strong woman.” These experiences and the language with which they are framed, haunt. For years, I tried to compress them, to put them away, to pretend my body never suffered nearly irreparable damage. I could not rest; the memories haunted and were demanding. They snuck into my other stories, leaked into conversations, begged for attention. It took almost seventeen years before I confronted them.
Now, I believe that telling our birth stories is important postpartum care. It can be therapeutic. I hungered for these stories. I wanted someone to tell me that what happened to me was familiar. I needed that community, but met walls. It was a different time. I am glad that the tides are turning; themes formerly framed with shame are now being challenged. We are currently holding difficult and uncomfortable conversations. It is why postpartum narratives form the central theme of my current full-length critical piece because I think this subject belongs not only in our communities but also in the literary sphere and academia.
You have written several essays centering on childbirth and motherhood; your narration could easily be regarded as too brazen or passionate for critics and people of older generations who kept this information about womanhood secretive. Have you encountered these criticisms after you began writing openly about this topic? Despite how others interpreted, (dis)agreed with, or misunderstood you, what has kept you going?
Answer: The earlier criticisms were unkind. The critics thought that the topic was too confessional (another postmodernist term I absolutely detest), too absorbed with the self, and overly narcissistic. The belief is that “high literature,” whatever that means, looks outward and is concerned with the struggles or sufferings of the others. I, however, take comfort in Dorothy Allison’s words, who writes that “the best [work] comes from the place where our terror hides.” She adds that “until I was writing about exactly the things I was most afraid of and unsure about, I wasn’t writing worth a damn.”
I do understand the sentiments expressed by critics like Parul Sehgal, who feels that trauma sometimes flattens a story because it reduces characters to “symptoms.” However, what I have learned to do, is to include my community in my stories, to show our textures, especially the diverse experiences of the women around me, which gathered like candle wax and formed the woman I have become.
In several interviews, writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have highlighted the desire to discuss other topics and issues beyond what they are known for. So, beyond the subject of postpartum care and creative writing, are there any other issues or topics dear to you but you don’t often talk about or get the opportunity to express in your art?
Answer: I respect writers who refuse deliberate pigeon-holing. Beyond talking about the maternal and postpartum interiorities, I, of course, enjoy talking about the craft of writing nonfiction and fiction, too. I teach creative writing. I teach introduction to literature, which leans more toward critical analysis of diverse literatures. I teach English composition and business writing. I facilitate masterclasses and seminars on writing and craft. I teach critical writing and research and encourage analyses that are grounded in theory. I enjoy doing all these things. However, if you ask me to choose a first love (if there is ever a need to choose a first love), I will return to this theme that I hold dear.
Some authors recall a moment of transformation or a “click” that informed them about the idea of their work. Was there a particular moment of inspiration for Ogadinma’s story, or was it a story unconsciously built over time?
Answer: It didn’t happen in this case. Perhaps it is because OGADINMA is a communal story, and so all I needed was to tell it, no matter how uncomfortable that journey was.
The interview will not do justice to Ogadinnma without addressing its theme of violence against women. There is a fatigue that comes from fighting injustice without an end in sight. What is or was your hope for highlighting the same issue that women have battled against for years?
Answer: I must thank you for reading my work so carefully and coming up with these questions. With OGADINMA, I hoped for a conversation, and I am so honored by the responses the work has received. The novel calls our attention to the misogyny that is still rife in our communities. Unfortunately, not much has changed between Ogadinma’s time and today. Women still face similar segregation. Women are still relegated to the fringes of our political sphere. Girls are still shipped off into early marriages. Nothing has really changed. You could switch the period in the novel to 2022, and you wouldn’t notice the change in time. I am, however, glad that we continue to have these conversations.
You are the founder of Isele Magazine, which we admire. Isele Magazine has just announced the Isele prizes for short stories, poetry, and essays. As literary prize winner and the editor-in-chief of a prize-giving literary platform, what aspects of literature in Africa or Nigeria do you think the emergence of these prizes can enhance or solve?
Answer: The initiative is our opportunity to celebrate the writers who contributed to our growth and who trust us enough to publish their work with us. I think it is the greatest gift; we are barely two years in the literary sphere and have received such tremendous support and love. The Isele Prizes is our way of saying “thank you.”
In your speech during the announcement of the 2021 SprinNG Women Authors Prize, you said,
“I think Ogadinma will be very proud, and Ogadinma is a collective name for the women in my community who had to go through this. Who had to suffer so that we would not suffer; who had to pave the way for us; who had to endure, and their endurance in really toxic situations, really difficult situations is brave. It is the bravest thing because they had to be there for us to find our own voice.”
If you met Ogadinma today, what would you say to her?
Answer: I think I would just hug her and hold on for a long time.
Illustration by Tiffany Baker
You believe that “distance is a form of self-care” when writing from personal experiences. Which of your books felt more personal? Are there any practical exercises you would recommend to other writers to check self-censoring and the feeling of shame from getting personal?
Answer: In my case, I needed a bit of geographical distance from my source of trauma to be able to confront myself and my experiences on the page. Lately, I have begun to look more outward. One exercise that has helped with my creative nonfiction is writing about my environment. Like the climate and nature, our religious practices, the music we played, the food my family enjoyed, the sounds on the streets, our clothing and tales, my family’s origin stories. I write short responses to these prompts and stitch the fragments into my deeply personal stories in such a way that they form the spine of my reflections. That way, the essay is more about me and even more about what formed me.
Knowing what you know now about your life and journey as a writer, if there was something you could return to do differently, what would it be and why?
Answer: I don’t really know. Maybe, play a lot harder? Dance a lot more? I am such a terrible dancer. I used to love singing (I actually was in a choir), but marriage and motherhood happened, and then academia. If I would do anything differently, I would never have left the choir and would have taken up dancing. They undoubtedly would have helped ease some of the stiffness in my joints.
What was the best advice you received that has made you who you are today?
Answer: To be a little more selfish. To prioritize my feeling, even if just for a moment.
At the end of your essay, “After Three children, Reclaiming My Body and My Mind,” you wrote,
It is now 17 years since the birth of my first child, and my altered body has finally begun to feel right. I have learned to wear it. I have slipped easily into a new life, one occasionally wracked with the memories of my experiences, but I am no longer afraid because I now know my affliction.
With this new life, what are your future aspirations?
Answer: Writing forever and ever, and maybe a future in academia? We’ll see.
Ukamaka Olisakwe’s heart-wrenching novel tells the story of the naive and trusting Ogadinma as she battles against Nigeria’s deeply-ingrained patriarchal systems in the 1980s, a time of coups, food shortages, and religious extremism.
After a rape and unwanted pregnancy leave her exiled from her family in Kano, thwarting her plans to go to university, she is sent to her aunt’s in Lagos and pressured into a marriage with an older man.
As their whirlwind romance descends into abuse and indignity, Ogadinma is forced to channel all of her independence and resourcefulness into finding her voice and strength in the face of abuse and cultural expectations.