Hope C. Eze, a PhD student in the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Canada, spoke with Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, Isele contributor and newly appointed postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, on his forthcoming books: Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021) and Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021). Eze is also a social critic and literary scholar, whose research interests encompass ecocriticism, women’s studies, cultural studies, and disability studies.
Hope C. Eze: Congrats on your two books—Double Wahala, Double Trouble and Wish Maker. How have you been able to juggle poetry, fiction, and academic writing?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: Thank you very much, Hope. My family has been very supportive, and I couldn’t have produced much critical and creative work without their support and understanding. Mind you, I sometimes can mess up the whole house whenever I am writing. Yet, one thing that I have found helpful is to work with milestones: keep a list of projects I plan to pull off. I learned this method from Dr. Lahoucine Ouzgane, my PhD supervisor, and Dr. Albert Braz, my professor and first reader, both at the University of Alberta. This method has helped me focus on my sundry projects, mainly because I procrastinate and binge-watch films on Netflix. I can be lazy, but my friends sometimes find it hard to believe it. Another thing I have found helpful is to find joy in what I do: that has made it much easier for me not to feel frustrated when one of the projects has gone kaput or things appear to be going wrong.
Hope C. Eze: How do you go about transforming an idea into a short story? And what do you think makes a good short story?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: No creative endeavour is easy. Not too long ago, I had chats with the authors of two fantastic novels—Yejide Kilanko, author of A Good Name, and Ukamaka Olisakwe, author of Ogadinma—about fiction, and I realised yet again from those chats that it takes grit to see a story idea through and develop it into a fun story. I don’t know what makes a good story, if there’s any such thing as a good or bad story, to begin with. For me, I’m more interested in writing short stories that appeal to readers on some level—I mean, something that leaves them thinking about life in its complexity or fragility, or perhaps, the despoliation of our planet. Any short story worth its name should give the reader some insight into how we live and love, how we fight and heal, how we impair or imperil each other, how are inescapably entangled with each other, and how it is futile to even disentangle ourselves from this web of intimacy or sociality.
Hope C. Eze: What aspect of writing Double Wahala, Double Trouble gave you the most wahala? What was the most difficult aspect of putting these stories together?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: Generally, I found the whole process and experience of working on the short story collection exciting and demanding. Although I don’t know if writing ever gets easier with time, I hope it does. Writing the early drafts was the main challenge, wondering if I was narrating the stories the way that I had first imagined them. Sometimes you begin with a kernel of an idea, and then the story springs into a pace of its own. Stories are mobile. A story is remarkably mobile, hardly static. When I start writing a story, I don’t know what route it will take, where it might lead, and what it might find along its path. Sometimes, a story strays a little too far off the road I’ve already mapped. I try not to fidget when this happens. If anything, I’m pleasantly surprised to see a story detouring, skirting a roadblock, exploring new tracks—or even burrowing through the undergrowth to uncover wonders. Who is not cheered by the pleasure of unique finds!
Hope C. Eze: The stories deal with all sorts of troubles for the characters. “Neighbours” is humorous, even though it tackles the subject of emotional abuse and domestic violence. What inspired this story?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: I grew up in Lagos and saw domestic violence playing out in some families. I lived in Owerri during my undergraduate years and still witnessed intimate partner violence in some homes. I currently live in Edmonton, Alberta, and I have heard stories of spousal abuse—this is even more prevalent in African communities than we tend to acknowledge. I remember the first time I saw a woman with a swollen eye and split lip. I was ten, and I always believed the woman and her husband were a perfect couple. I never knew she was suffering in silence, and her good-looking husband was her tormentor not until a fight broke out in their flat and neighbours gathered around to intervene. So, for a long while, I have been drawn to this idea of faces and appearances, how people endure misery behind closed doors, the masks we wear, the smiles we fake—how innocence can often mask cruelty. The fact that we may never know what is happening in the lives of neighbours, or even friends, unless they can muster some courage and share their struggles and adversities with us.
Hope C. Eze: There is a predominance of only-child characters in this collection. How challenging was the process of conveying such powerful stories from a child’s perspective?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: I agree with you about my use of child narrators in some of the stories. My publisher, Bibi Ukonu, of Griots Lounge Publishing, Canada, has also remarked on this narrative element. I think of Uwem Akpan’s grim collection of short stories, Say You Are One of Them. Anyway, maybe, I want to relive my childhood. Well, can we ever escape our childhood? That said, I wanted to trouble the way we associate innocence with children—so what better way to do that than use the perspective of a child or a preteen? I also think children are less judgmental, more accepting, and more open to the world in ways that prompt us to think about our fixation on rationality and our proclivities to repress rather than acknowledge our vulnerabilities, even to our detriment. Yet, one area I found challenging was how to tackle weighty issues through the eyes of a child. How can I be authentic enough so that my own preconceptions do not seep into the mind of the fictional child character I was trying to create? Well, I hope I’ve succeeded in presenting compelling child narrators.
Hope C. Eze: That brings me to your children’s book, Wish Maker, coming out in November. Can you talk a little about it?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike:Wish Maker is my attempt at writing magic realism. The book simply tells the story of Ebele, a nine-year-old boy, who wishes for gifts as Christmas draws near. He lives with his widowed mother, and she can barely afford food. His friends mock him because they are poor, and they threaten to dump him if his mother fails to get him some Christmas gifts. Long story short, a smelly strange man comes to town, and Ebele and the stranger soon become friends. The stranger is quirky and annoying, but he eventually convinces Ebele to face his fears of the river in his village, where his father died. I’m grateful that Othuke Ominiabohs of Masobe Books loved the manuscript and decided to publish it. It’s a story I very much enjoyed writing, mainly because Ebele’s fear of water somehow mirrors the hesitation and apprehension I sometimes feel anytime I am swimming in a river or sea. Wish Maker is brilliantly illustrated, remarkably colourful, so I am positive children will love the book. In the meantime, Griots Lounge Publishing and I are finalizing plans to have a Canadian edition published before the summer of 2022.
Feature image: University of Alberta