Every year at Afobiri Secondary School, a student loses their life to mysterious circumstances. It began with James Iyaye, a one-time senior prefect whose spleen was ruptured by a car as he crossed the street. Then, Paul Tamunowari followed, his lifeless body found in a well. The next year, Martha Atta, her corpse, was found at the bottom of the stairs. And most recently, Janet Uzor, who supposedly drowned in a pool. It is these recurring deaths that set the pace for Miracle Emeka-Nkwor’s debut, What Happened To Janet Uzor, a young adult crime fiction.
What Happened to Janet Uzor follows the story of four friends, Pamela, Ebere, Dan, and Echezonachukwu. A year after losing their friend Janet, they’re bound not just by their shared grief, but also by a conviction that their friend’s death, just like the others, wasn’t ordinary. Shunned by the adults in their lives, these four teens take it upon themselves to prove that there is a serial killer on the loose, get justice for their friend, and put a stop to the killings.
In the end, new truths emerge and they question everything they thought they knew of themselves.
This novel shows us how resilient young people can be. In the words of the author: “This book portrays how far kids would go to really prove themselves and validate their thoughts/fears.”
For the second episode of our Isele Writers Series, Uchenna Emelife spoke with Miracle Emeka-Nkwor about her brilliant debut, African genre fiction, and some of the themes she explored in the novel, including mental health, teenageness, friendship, among others.
Uchenna Emelife: I would like to begin this chat by letting you know how much I enjoyed your book. It was a breath of fresh air, especially since it isn’t the kind of story we find every day in African literature.
But before we go on, can we chat briefly about the backdrop your book is set against—African genre fiction?
When people pick up fiction by an African writer, they automatically assume it is literary fiction—a bildungsroman, protest or political fiction, rarely other genres like crime, Africanfuturism, thriller, horror, romance, fantasy, etc. This could be because the volume of African genre fiction published every year pales in comparison to the literary fiction, save for the efforts of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Leye Adenle, Tomi Adeyemi, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Ben Okri, you, and many others.
Do you think that this stereotype, this near-single story of African fiction, will continue to be a thing if more African writers do not attempt other genres besides literary fiction?
Miracle Emeka-Nkwor: As you rightly said, the credible efforts of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Leye Adenle, Tomi Adeyemi, Oyinkan Braithwaite and Ben Okri among others have created an awakening in many and it’s safe to say a bit of an African literary revolution is underway.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that the stereotype of African literature being generally regarded as literary fiction is as a result of our environment and it also begins, primarily, at the grassroots level.
At first, it seemed as though writers were tasked with the duty and obligation of gatekeeping and ensuring our stories were told (and preserved in the sands of time), hence, the bildungsroman and other literary fiction.
In contemporary times, there’s a need to ensure that readers connect with your story and feel a wave of emotions whether happy or sad.
Then there’s also a need for books to be didactic (another pressure some writers choose to put themselves under); the compelling need to teach a lesson.
These and many more confine some writers and readers to believe that these stories are the only things that are typical of African literature.
Children are taught mainly literary fiction in school and they grow into it; they find that all the African books to which they are exposed do not explore other genres as books by non-Africans. This strengthens the stereotype and further enforces the danger of the single story.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t authors and creative Africans who write genre fiction, but it’s difficult to thrive in these environments.
The knowledge of the “market” rarely allows African publishers take a shot at genre fiction. They understand that not all Africans regard reading as a means of pleasure and sheer entertainment. The average African man/woman getting an “African” book for his child wants to know, “what will my child learn from this book?”
People read a fantasy novel and get filled with wonder and excitement.
They read a crime/thriller novel and are intrigued.
They read literary fiction and feel a plethora of emotions ranging from anger to sadness to happiness among others…and this is seen to have more marketing value, thus, creating little or no room for genre fiction to flourish in this space.
To ensure that this stereotype does not become a reality, publishers must be willing to take that leap of faith. Most of the authors currently known for writing African genre fiction were published beyond African shores and by non-African publishers. If Masobe Books had not sought out something ‘new and exciting’, my debut novel, What Happened to Janet Uzor, would probably not be getting this recognition it’s getting now.
African writers of genre fiction do exist. All they need is a chance to show what they’re made of. That way, this preconceived notion will slowly make way for the truth: that African fiction encompasses all genres.
Uchenna: This is so apt, and I agree with you about the role publishers can play in fighting the stereotype. There is a huge market for African genre fiction and I know this because I run a book club for Nigerian students and each time our book of the month is any genre fiction, we have more people join the reading sessions. This is because many young African readers fell in love with books, especially through Western genre fiction, the likes of Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson franchise, and the likes. We read African books out of obligation, and as recommended by our schools, and they addressed themes we couldn’t really connect with.
Now imagine how larger the readership of African literature would grow if African publishers maximised this audience, put out more works that are not just literary fiction. They will not only squash that stereotype; they will increase the market for African books.
Miracle: Spot on, Uche! Spot on!
Uchenna: Thank you!
Now, why did you choose to write What Happened To Janet Uzor? In a recent interview, you mentioned that the first draft of this novel was written when you were 15. I have a few questions for your 15-year-old self, because why does a story about a serial killer interest you at 15??? Haha!
What I would like to know now is if there is a particular motivation behind your choice to tell this story?
Miracle: I had a life-changing encounter in our secondary school’s library at the age of 14 and it has contributed greatly to my writing all these years.
At the age of 15, I wasn’t writing from a place of motivation per se. It was just a fun challenge for me. I remember then that I was extremely crazy about plot twists and unpredictable storylines. I was always filled with excitement and a sense of pride because whenever I shared my stories with my classmates, they wouldn’t take their eyes off the pages until they were done.
The aim had always been to ensure that every new story beat the old one and have my classmates say, “Ah, Miracle, I didn’t see that coming!” And sometimes, they would add: “Jesus, you’re wicked!” Haha!
It was all fun and games, but it was the motivation for the 15-year-old Miracle.
Uchenna: I totally get that sense of pride and it is quite similar to my experience in school too, except that for me, it wasn’t stories, but notes, mostly romantic notes. I binged on romcoms that were obviously not appropriate for my age and I developed a flair for writing the sweetest notes. And of course, that endeared me to the class, and you had to be at my beck and call to get me to write a note for you. Haha. Such mischief.
Back to your 15-year-old self. I get the part of wanting to tell a young adult story. But a story about teens mysteriously dying every Christmas? Woah, that’s something we don’t see the average Nigerian 15-year-old thinking about. So, gist us. How did that come to be?
Miracle: Haha! You were quite THE CHILD, I must say. I totally understand the bit about you reading books inappropriate for your age. My mum took that daunting task upon herself whenever she could find the time  because since I didn’t have many books at my disposal, I read everything that crossed my path. I can’t count the number of times she had to admonish me, saying, “this girl, it’s not every book you see that you read!”
Over to your question. This is going to be a long response because this is very personal. Remember, I mentioned having a life-changing encounter at 14? Well, there were two. One was more “domestic” while the other was rather “external,” if I must put it that way. I was in SS2 and like the average Nigerian teenager, 80% of the movies I was exposed to were romance mixed with other secondary themes, and that was reflected in my choice of books and writing.
The domestic encounter occurred during a hot night in my father’s living room. I had just concluded another story and though there was a power outage, I asked my older cousin, Chidera, to read my latest ‘masterpiece’. With shoulders held high and this big grin on my face, I dropped the book on her lap and told her to read it. Long story cut short, my dearly beloved cousin flung my ink-designed hardcover notebook and said, “all these your ‘yeye’ Nigerian storylines that someone can tell the ending just by looking at the first page!”
I was stunned. Nobody had ever given my works such a negative criticism. I was so hurt and pissed, and she didn’t stop talking; she told me to pick up my “Nigerian movie” from the floor and leave her alone.
I picked up the book, glared at her, and returned to the sofa. I tried not to cry. I told her, “you see this thing you did to me today? The whole world must hear it. When I get published and become a star and win awards, I’ll tell the whole world how you threw my book away!” While I was giving this speech, she was laughing as though that was the funniest joke. And she did not stop saying, while still laughing, that there was nothing unique about my writing.
I decided to write something different and show her that my stories could be unique. This led to the second encounter in school.
I had a book on my library TBR list called Timeless Love and my classmate who read it a day before hid it in one of the bookshelves (we did this a lot). The next day, I walked into the library all hyped and ready to devour the book, but I couldn’t find it. My friends and I nearly turned the library upside down that day because I wasn’t willing to read anything else. The librarian offered me boxes containing new arrivals and suggested I look to see if the book had found its way there. I didn’t find it but I saw a book that caught my eyes! The Betrayal by R. L. Stine. I had read his book, The Babysitter, and the one I was staring at suddenly seemed like a perfect replacement. So I got reading and was fascinated by how deceitful and vile the human mind could be; it was an ethereal experience; I had goosebumps while reading. I couldn’t believe such books existed.
I then began to wonder what it would be like to create stories where people weren’t who we thought they were, where the killer was closest to home. I wanted that so badly and that was how the Nigerian teenage girl came up with a story of secondary school children dying every Christmas.
Uchenna: You had quite the experience and I love how you turned a negative remark into fuel for your unusual stories. Sometimes when we are faced with the truth, it stings. What we do with/after the pain determines whether we’ve learnt or not.
What Happened To Janet Uzor is told through multiple perspectives and this allowed the reader see the unfolding of events through the lens of the various characters. At one point, it’s Pamela’s, the next, Ebere’s, the next, Eche or Dan; it was interesting to follow these perspectives. Is there a particular effect you were aiming for with this device?
Miracle: Teenagers are probably the most complex living humans in the world. They think nobody understands them but themselves and we all know that’s not really true. However, you don’t want to tell them that outrightly.
In my book, four kids with different personalities come together to fight for a common cause and it was my intention to ensure that their individuality was preserved, to help the readers see that there’s more to them than saving Pam’s life.
The effect then is having young adult readers see themselves through these characters, so they can stand in solidarity with the ones they resonate with.
Uchenna: This preservation of their individuality is a feature I love about your book. I love how you were able to allow your teenage characters to be themselves, even while dealing with “grown-up” stuff. These teens were not written beyond their ages and were at the same time, piecing very advanced puzzles. That fusion was brilliant. There was Pam and her conflicting feelings for Dan and Eche; her bouts of jealousy when she isn’t the centre of attention; and much more. All these while solving a case even the police couldn’t properly investigate. So how did you do it? How were you able to reconcile their teenageness?
Miracle: I owe this to the fact that I had conceived this story when I was a teenager myself and growing up, I was able to feel the right amount of empathy towards these four children. Empathy is what drives me to ensure my characters thrive in their various worlds while being themselves.
Children are naturally inquisitive and woe betide you if their fears are confirmed and you still don’t take them seriously. Their next line of action is to seek out different ways to convince you, and that’s really what this book portrayed. They didn’t just set out with knives and guns in search of a smart serial killer. They were scared and anxious and needed the adults badly. This book portrays how far kids would go to really prove themselves and validate their thoughts/fears.
Uchenna: Speaking of teen agency, we live in a society where no one listens to young people; a society where decisions are made on behalf of a child without asking them first; a society where the child is told to sit down and listen because you don’t speak when an adult is talking; a society that believes that humans are only full when they become adults, any less, they remain half and should not be listened to. This is the kind of society your characters live in and that would explain why Ebere’s suspicions that there was more to the deaths, were swept under the carpet. Just as you have said, it took the entire pack coming up with pieces of evidence for the adults (parents and police) to take them seriously, and even then, there were still doubts. Amidst all these, Ebere stayed glued to her conviction that the deaths were not ordinary. Her strong will could have been broken, but she stayed strong and convinced.
Can you talk about writing Ebere, as well as this rarely-talked-about issue of taking young people, especially teens, for granted?
Miracle: Ebere! The one person who seems to have stolen the heart of every reader. Writing Ebere was pretty easy for me. She was more an extension of my teenage self. I used to be really stubborn in my own right and if I was convinced about something, nothing could change my mind. Everyone older than me said it was a bad trait. Creating Ebere was a chance to make them know that a child deserves to be taken seriously. In Ebere, I was able to unleash all the pent-up emotions on behalf of me and my peers. Ebere stands in for every child who has convictions but is told to shut her mouth.
Children are always seen as lesser human beings, that they have no idea of what is good or bad for them. Most of them end up being neglected or overly sheltered by their parents and guardians. Now, I’m not saying that children are always right or that they should be allowed to do everything they want; I’m trying to encourage a different narrative. Children need guidance but adults must not invalidate their feelings. Adults need to find the right approach to working with children. Nothing boosts a child’s self-esteem like having an adult that they love and care about giving them a listening ear.
What Happened To Janet Uzor was written to address this issue. For example, a lot of parents seize their children’s phones as a way of punishment, cutting them from what they love the most. We see the implication of this in the book. I hope we as a society will think of more productive ways of handling teenagers.
Uchenna: Oh you’re so right. This is a conversation that needs to be had. Everyone deserves to be heard irrespective of their age, but ours is a society where age is equated with intelligence and so being young automatically passes you off as less intelligent. As for everyone liking Ebere, it is difficult not to. She had just the right amount of strong-headedness every young person needs to survive in a society like ours.
And then there is that subtle hint at how we often dismiss mental health. We see this when Pamela recounts how her father would’ve taken her for deliverance instead of a therapist, as is in Ebere’s case. This was a passing comment, but it reflects our reality. Rather than seek professional medical help, we visit prayer houses. The irony. Could you comment on this?
Miracle: I’m happy that our people are beginning to take mental health seriously. A lot of adults are traumatised and aren’t even aware. The societal pressure of being ‘strong’ weighs heavily on them and thinking it to be normal, they pass down this same mindset to the children placed in their care, and at other times, they attribute certain questionable behaviours to the spiritual. I believe that prayer is a massive and highly productive tool as long as wisdom is applied. The Holy Bible expressly says, “faith without works is dead.” You can’t pray to God for a job and sit at home without applying for jobs. You can’t pray to God to help you pass exams without trying to read. People should have this same mindset when tackling mental health issues. Wisdom is of crucial importance in these times.
Uchenna: I’m also glad about how mental health is now getting its long overdue attention and it is representations in books as in yours, that help further the enlightenment.
“The societal pressure of being ‘strong’ weighs heavily on them…” This line reminds me of Chimamanda’s response to a journalist who described her as ‘strong’ for supposedly facing her grief head-on. She responded, “I’m not strong. I don’t think anybody should be strong in the face of grief.” We’ve placed so much value on strength that even in times where vulnerability is expected, we put up a facade and still claim strong.
Speaking of grief, in the early pages of the novel, Pamela laments that Ebere’s insistence on Janet’s and other deaths not being ordinary made her relive her grief over and over again. And I understand where she is coming from. Grief isn’t a good place to be and more than anything, we wish to move past it and heal, but that’s impossible when someone keeps poking at the memory of your loved one, telling you there is more to their passing.
On Ebere’s part, mourning her friend was not about acceptance but about justice. To grieve was to search for the ‘whys’ of the death and not just to move on. She could only heal when the killer was found.
These were contrasting but valid ways both expressed their grief because after all, grief is a personal journey. But which do you consider healthy? If you had the faintest suspicion that your loved one was killed rather than died naturally, would you follow it up at the expense of your never moving on? Or would you let it go and allow your loved one’s killer run freely, but you grieve less?
Miracle: I don’t consider one healthier than the other. We’re all wired differently and as you rightly said, grief is a personal journey. Person A might choose to move on and look at what the future holds, while Person B might feel there’s no moving until this is sorted out. It’s all a matter of the people involved, and handling grief is never easy, especially when it involves a loved one.
Uchenna: The twists and turns in What Happened To Janet Uzor shows us how limited our knowledge of others is, no matter how close you are to them. That knowledge remains confined to what they’re willing to reveal to you. So you could be the best of friends and have zero idea of that secret that completely negates everything you think of them.
This is scary because how then are you supposed to balance trusting someone you’ve found a friend in, with the knowledge that they may not be who you think they are?
Miracle: Life is a risk. Friendship is a beautiful thing if shared between the right people. And the willingness to trust someone and be vulnerable with them is a risk in itself.
And I think we don’t avoid risks. Rather, we calculate them, to be certain that they’re worth taking.
We live each day with our loved ones knowing we aren’t promised tomorrow. We know that grieving is hard when we lose people we love, but it doesn’t stop us from loving, from being happy, and making beautiful memories.
I think we control what is controllable and let the uncontrollable take its due course. And if trust is broken, we try to pick up our pieces and heal.
Uchenna: “Control what is controllable and let the uncontrollable take its due course” sums it perfectly. After all, as Shakespeare says in the voice of Duncan, “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
This has been a lovely conversation. Let’s talk about your writing outside What Happened To Janet Uzor.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you give Isele an exclusive on what that is and when we should be expecting it? I’m sure our readers who have read What Happened To Janet Uzor would also want to know when next they can read you. Haha.
Miracle: Here come the pressure! Haha!
Yes, I’m working on something at the moment. It’s a young adult novel as well, set in a secondary school in Port Harcourt.
To tell you further about this new book, I’ll quote my friend: “If nobody dies in the book, it can’t be M. E. N. that wrote it.”
That’s as far as this exclusive can go, Uche. I also can’t give a date but it’ll be out when it’ll be out.
Uchenna: This is enough exclusive.
Hello world, Miracle Emeka-Nkwor has another YA coming soon. It’s set in a secondary school in Port Harcourt and going by her history, would thrill and hurt our poor hearts. You heard this first from Isele!
Meanwhile, I personally cannot wait. I wish you the very best writing and eventually publishing it. Take all the time you need, but also don’t let us wait too long. LOL.
I like to conclude my interviews by seeking book recommendations. What book(s) are you reading now and what other titles do you recommend?
Miracle: If I don’t hurt your hearts, who will?
Thank you so much for your kind wishes and I’ll try not to keep everyone waiting for too long.
I’m currently reading How To Be Good by Nick Hornby and though it’s not my go-to genre, I sometimes get into a specific mood where I try to read books that aren’t mystery or crime-related.
If you’re looking for a book to read, I’d recommend Dead Famous by Ben Elton (I can’t seem to shut up about this particular book), The Husband by Dean Koontz and The Mechanics of Yenegoa by Michael Afenfia.
If you’re looking for books that’ll tear your heart at the seams, I strongly recommend The Girl in The Letter by Emily Gunnis, A Broken People’s Playlist by Chimeka Garricks and Ogadimma by Ukamaka Olisakwe (this particular one will make you crazy and angry beyond human comprehension. Lol!)
Miracle Emeka-Nkwor also reads excerpts from her book, shares with us her motivations, and discusses some of the themes she explored in the novel.
About the Author:
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, a bookseller, and a human rights advocate. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. Uchenna Emelife is as well an advocate for Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and anti-Sexual and Gender-based Violence. As a fellow of the African Youth Adolescent Network (AfriYAN), he has been contracted for various virtual campaigns to support the cause by Education as a Vaccine and United Nations Population Fund (UNPA).