In October, Nigerian author, Uchenna Awoke, became the first featured writer for the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop’s (PVWW) Writing Across Borders Program.
Uchenna did a reading via Zoom and then took questions from the audience.
PVWW, a literary arts organization based in Western MA, launched the program to encourage the cross-pollination of ideas between writers across cultures and continents. What made Uchenna an obvious first candidate for the program was not just his immense literary talent, but how, despite his currently dire living conditions, he continues to push his writing forward.
In 2020, a conflict in his rural region of Uzo-Uwani, Nsukka, in Nigeria – between semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen seeking grazing land for their cattle and the crop-dependent farmers led to frequent violent attacks on villagers in the region. Uchenna and his family fled and found refuge in another town.
Internet access is currently sketchy for Uchenna. In order to participate in the Zoom call, he had to find an Internet connection at a nearby hotel, and even then, the connection was so unstable that he had to turn the video off for his reading to continue. This sort of challenge is nothing new for Uchenna. Over the last few years, he has had to deal with worse, but that hasn’t stopped him from looking for space and time to write.
Before the conflict, his constant search for opportunities to further his writing saw him receive a MacDowell Writing Fellowship in 2018. His short stories have appeared in Transition, Elsewhere Lit, and other places. While at MacDowell, he completed the manuscript for his first novel, The Liquid Eye of a Moon.
We spoke to him about his work and the challenges he faces as he works towards realizing his dream of publishing his first book.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you started writing.
I was born into a low-income family in a rural community in Eastern Nigeria. Because of my love for education, I followed an uncle to the city of Lagos to help his wife as a bread vendor in exchange for part time Stenography classes between 1986 and 1989. Unfortunately, my education was cut short when my uncle lost his job and had to relocate to the village.
I later traveled across the country and then moved from place to place, taking on menial jobs. I worked as a farmhand, a builder’s assistant, an undertaker, a commercial bus conductor, and did any other work I could find. I had hoped to save money from my earnings to return to school but my siblings had become my dependents after we lost our father, and our mother had fallen ill with kidney disease and also needed my support.
So basically, I started to write when it became clear that my dream of returning to school had been dashed. I was twenty then. My encounter with typing and especially shorthand (transcriptions) had helped to nurture my interest in the English Language and writing. My experiences from my sojourns inspired my earliest work which centered on poverty and human tabooing.
Who were some of the important people in your formative years as a writer?
Ejiofor Ugwu is the name that readily comes to mind. The name is synonymous with self-rediscovery. I met Ejiofor Ugwu at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Currently, he is studying at Syracuse University. I had been writing long before we met, but meeting him redefined fiction writing for me. He took my writing through deep diagnoses. The result was a radical transformation, a black-and-white contrast, a rebirth of my creative self.
He did this magic by giving me feedback that helped me recognize strengths in my weaknesses. He also identified and encouraged me to read good writers and to write short stories.
The writers he recommended for me Included: V.S. Naipaul, Kafka, Chinua Achebe, Helon Habila, Ben Okri, Ferdinand Oyono, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and so many other wonderful writers that have in one way or the other influenced my writing. He went on to edit my early short stories that appeared in Transition and Elsewhere Lit.
How did you hear about MacDowell Fellowship and what was that experience like for you?
I first heard of the MacDowell Fellowship through Ejiofor Ugwu. You see why I say the name is synonymous with my self-rediscovery as a writer. Being awarded a MacDowell Fellowship, I can say authoritatively, is the most heartwarming thing to happen to me as far as writing is concerned. Back home I struggle to write amidst economic hardship, civil unrest, acts of terrorism, and of course, epileptic power supply.
But MacDowell was a whole new experience offering me five weeks of unlimited time and freedom to create. I did not only acquire my first laptop (a gift from MacDowell), I saw my first snow at MacDowell. I am talking of a partnership between nature and ministration.
These things work together: the friendly atmosphere, the view that is so beautiful it looks surreal, the magnificent meals, and 24-hour access to the Savidge Library stocked with old and contemporary literature, written by some of the most powerful writers on earth who were themselves MacDowell Fellows. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you spy is a herd of deer standing at the far tree-line; it’s all part of the creative renaissance that I talked about.
How did you write before you had the laptop?
Paper and pen. At some point, I barely could afford paper and pen to write with. I remember the day my mother emptied the only oil lamp we used in the family so I would stop writing—she saw it as a waste of kerosene, but more importantly, she believed it would lead me into trouble. I do not blame her. What business did I have with paper and pen and the midnight oil? I was a high school dropout. It was a sheer waste of kerosene. And when it came, the laptop from MacDowell played a big role in revolutionizing my writing.
At what point was your life disrupted by the conflict between the herdsmen and the farmers? How did they affect you?
At this moment, I am answering your questions from a hideout. To put it briefly, violence escalated between Fulani herdsmen and the local farmers whose countless crops are being destroyed by the herdsmen’s cattle. The farmers killed the cows and in retaliation, the Fulani militants resorted to attacking the locals.
They stormed in the dead of night and burnt down everything, houses and their slumbering occupants included. A number of villages have been razed down, and nothing is being done to stop the Fulani militants, so my family and I sought refuge in a neighboring town where there’s relative peace. We consider ourselves lucky to have a roof over our heads, a storehouse that serves as a bedroom, kitchen, study, and all, for my family and me.
What sort of work do you do now to make a living?
I have a clerical job. I do not have a university degree so it is hard to get good work, but it helps to keep my family from starving especially now that we have been displaced and the farmland where we used to grow crops to supplement our earnings has become a battlefield.
How do you make time to write in your current situation?
I make time to read to train my imagination, I write when the muse descends on me. I can reach for pen and paper halfway through a meal to scribble something down. I have many a time rushed out of the bathroom in a towel and covered in soap in a fleeting moment of inspiration. Sometimes I pull out some paper from my pocket to pen down something while in a bus going somewhere. For me, there are no schedules when it comes to writing.
You mentioned some writers that were recommended to you by your mentor. Who are some of your favorites?
I read V.S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas” and I loved the blend of humor and malice in the story. I have read all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels; I love them for their clarity and fluidity of language. Helon Habila for his powerfully evocative style, Chinua Achebe for his transliterational variety of English and simple sentence structure. These and many others are powerful writers I admire so much.
And your dream as a writer?
I just want to be remembered as a writer who touched lives positively with his stories. I want to be able to add my own tiny voice to the voices seeking to find something of value in the face of human pain and suffering. Maybe it’s because I have a strong feeling of empathy about this. A sense of déjà vu.
PHOTO: Uchenna Awoke was displaced by violence in his home area and found refuge in a nearby town.