In this conversation with Isele, Chika Unigwe talks about her short story, “The Weight of Love“, Princess Diana, and more.
Kenechi Uzor: Your recent story for Isele partly engages with the obsessions people can have with royals or with celebrities. Some psychologists think these “para-social relationships” help people cope with the difficulties in their own lives, while others have linked these obsessions to mental health or self esteem issues. Thinking about the narrator’s mother in the story, I wonder if her interest in Princess Diana is a manifest of her mental health issues or just her way of managing life’s challenges.
Chika Unigwe: I think the narrator’s mother’s obsession has to do with growing up with parents for whom the royal family represented perfection: the ultimate aspiration. The way she deals with her obsession, however, is a manifestation of her mental health challenges. Why are human beings obsessed with celebrities? Why the fascination? There are many reasons. For some people, celebrities represent the unattainable or the best (and they admire that). Their admiration morphs into love (doesn’t all love begin with admiration?) and morphs into worship (the ultimate display of love, right?) It is not always about self esteem or mental health issues.
KU: The story made me think about some of our human practices and why we have them. What is behind the act of mourning, for instance? When we mourn our dead, what exactly are we doing? Are we simply saying farewell? The narrator’s mother mourned her husband “to show her loyalty and love;” is that also why she mourned Princess Diana, a stranger she’d never met? Who is mourning for? Is mourning more for the mourner than the mourned who are too dead to notice?
CU: I think you’re conflating mourning (grieving) with the rituals surrounding it. We grieve because we loved. We grieve because we cannot not grieve. It is not something one can control. It’s like trying to control sadness when something that makes us sad happens. It’s not saying farewell, it’s our heart’s acknowledgement that a loss has occurred. The rituals are our way of saying goodbye, of bringing closure so that we the world that has been tilted by the loss can be forced back into balancing itself again. In some cultures, it is believed that the dead need those rituals too to be able to let go. In Catholicism, we pray for the souls of the dead because we believe that death is not the end, that the dead can still benefit from prayers. So the rituals around the dead are as much for the mourning as for the deceased in such cases.
KU: What do you think about the actual acts of mourning, from wearing dark clothes, eating bland food (like the narrator’s mother), or drinking water the corpse had been washed in? Any practicality behind these practices or are the acts of mourning mostly informed by emotion and so doesn’t have to make sense?
CU: These rituals come out of a culture that believed that there were ways to show respect to the dead to ensure that they passed on (happily?) They have nothing to do with emotions but everything to do with imposing order (and perhaps even control). The ones that you mention are terrible traditions and even dangerous (drinking water the corpse has been bathed in) and thankfully are obsolete or on their way out in communities that still practice them. However, rituals are not always bad.
At a time when people feel helpless, having rituals to hang on to might provide some sort of anchor and comfort. When a person dies, for example, why don’t we just bury the person? Why have a funeral? A repast?
KU: I am curious about what you think of the weight of love, and if/how it can be measured?
CU: How could one ever measure love?
KU: What was the process for writing this story like? Any challenges or joys? How long did it take? And are you satisfied with it?
CU: I wrote the first draft in one go, left it to marinate for a few days, then went back to it with a critical eye. I am as satisfied with it as I could be with whichever work I am confident enough to put out. It’s done, it’s out, whatever its imperfections, it’s mine.
Chika Unigwe holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, Holland. She is the author of four novels, including On Black Sisters Street and Night Dancer. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various journals including The New York Times, The Guardian, Aeon, Wasafiri,Transition, Guernica, Agni, and the Kenyon Review. Her works have been translated into many languages including German, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and Dutch. A recipient of several awards, she sat on the jury of the 2017 Man Booker International Award and is the director of Awele Creative Trust, an NGO she set up to encourage creative writing among young Nigerians.