“Lagos raised me. So maybe I am simply writing what I know. Or it might be closer to writing through my questions, seeking an understanding of this paradoxical city.”

While announcing ‘Pemi Aguda as the winner of the 2020 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award, Ian Rankin described her novel, THE SUICIDE MOTHERS, as “a wonderfully kinetic and gripping story” set in Lagos, which draws the reader “into a world that is utterly contemporary yet has room for the mythic and the supernatural.”

In this conversation with Isele, the multi-award winning writer talks about Lagos, the importance of an MFA, and why it no longer matters what section her stories are shelved under.

Do you think that anyone can be taught how to write, and do you believe that the MFA program makes us better writers?

I think the MFA makes us better writers in the way any workshop makes us better writers: by understanding why/how others’ stories work or don’t. The same way devoting time and study to any craft will most likely show improvement. I think people can be taught to be better readers, and consequently, better writers. That’s how it has worked for me, anyway. By articulating what is succeeding or not, I am then able to replicate or improve on those in my work. 

Lagos often is a character in your stories. Readers from all over the world are able to feel the pulse of the city/state just by reading your stories. Now you are working on “The Suicide Mothers” which is set that problematic and lovely place. What’s the motivation behind this love story with Lagos?

Lagos raised me. So maybe I am simply writing what I know. Or it might be closer to writing through my questions, seeking an understanding of this paradoxical city. Lagos doesn’t make sense, but it makes perfect sense. It might also be about surprise meeting familiarity; a subject that can surprise you, but is familiar enough to keep momentum through a project. The truth is it might be all the above, or none. The truth is that I don’t know.

You make us fall in love over and again with the speculative fiction. Who is your literary hero?

A hero suggests salvation. So perhaps the most accurate answer would be Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was after reading The Wizard of The Crow that I started to understand the ways speculative fiction could say things we might not have language for otherwise. But other writers have saved me with their surreal stories over and over again: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Helen Oyeyemi, Diane Cook, Julio Cortazar, Mia Couto, Han Kang, Aimee Bender, Laura van den Berg, Clare Beams, Angela Carter, Yoko Ogawa, Daisy Johnson…

Your stories sometime blur the lines between the real and the surreal, too. I am thinking of your fantastic story – 24, Alhaji Williams Street. What do you think of that oft pigeon-holing of the speculative fiction as simply SFF, not literary? 

I don’t care for pigeon-holing. But I don’t think about it that much these days. It can get consuming, distracting. I’ll write my stories and hope that it will find its readers no matter what section it’s shelved under. There’s so much beautiful blending and blurring of genres happening right now, I encourage everyone to approach stories with openness, a willingness to be surprised at what you like/react to/are moved by.

What’s on your bedside right now?

Ling Ma’s Severence

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born 

Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings

Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude 

Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

And then, there is that exciting Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award you recently won—congratulations! How does that feel?

Exciting, freeing! It’s bought me time to focus on the manuscript, and that’s such a blessing.

’Pemi Aguda has an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she is currently a fellow.

Her writing has won awards such as: a Henfield Prize, a Tyson Prize for Fiction, Hopwood Awards (for Novel, Short Fiction, Non-Fiction and Drama), and the 2015 Writivism Prize. She received a work-study scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2018, an Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship from the Carl Brandon Society to attend the Clarion Workshop in 2019, as well as a 2019 Juniper Summer Workshop scholarship. She was a finalist for the 2020 US National Magazine Award in Fiction. She is a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and her novel manuscript won the 2020 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award.