Our assistant editor, Uchenna Emelife, posed five questions to all the authors shortlisted for the 2023 edition of the Isele Prizes. The questions stretch from their writing processes, to the themes they are most drawn to, their inspirations, and more.

See Chinonso Nzeh’s responses. He is the author of “The Slipping Away“.

Uchenna Emelife: Could you talk about your shortlisted work, its writing process, and what informed it? 

Chinonso Nzeh: The Slipping Away is an essay about the anticipatory grief of my parents and the apprehension that comes with it. 

I’ve always had that anxiety about my parents slipping away from me since I was in secondary school. A whole lot of things informed this essay. The relationship I have with my parents is close-knit. I dare say it’s stronger than what I have with my siblings. They are my best friends, and you know, love intensifies grief. My peers had parents in their late thirties, and my parents were in their fifties; that was remarkably terrifying; my brain slowly notified me that something was distinct and I began to embrace the fear. Whenever I fell sick, I always felt a longing for my parents (I still do)— sickness made me think about the fickleness of life: my parents dying, me growing into an adult and having no lap to rest my head on, having no one to tell me, “Kedu ka ọ dị gị?”

And my dreams, too. I used to be particularly religious, and whenever I dreamt of my parents dying, it made me disturbed and sad. I could not tell anyone or pray about it because I felt it would become true that way. Even now, I still dream about them dying and it makes me sad, but I navigate it better. 

Because this is one of my biggest fears in the world, I wanted to give it language, so I had to write the essay and acknowledge this daunting truth. At first, I did not want to write it because I did not want to acknowledge it, but the thing about suppressing fear is that you think you’re free, but it plunges deep into your subconscious, growing into an enormous beast that’ll consume you when you don’t expect it. 

I remember the evening I finally decided to write this essay, a few months before my twentieth birthday. I was in my hostel, sprawled on my bunk bed, my laptop in front of me, the words flowing too easily as I typed in fear. At some point, I had to stop. It was fucking me up. I came back to the essay a month later, immediately after the ASUU strike happened. I had quarreled with my parents one day and later that night, I was remorseful, and I thought of the unfinished essay. That same night, I was listening to Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father; it made me cry. You know, especially the part where he said, “If I could get another chance, another walk, another dance with him, I’d play a song that would never ever end.” Those lines pierced me. I finished the essay that night. The next morning, I went to apologize to them. 

There were not many drafts. It was just a continuation of where I stopped in school, and maybe later on, I had to work on some lines.


UE: How do you tell a work is ready to meet the world? 

CN: I think it’s intuitive. You just know. Sometimes, an essay or a short story of mine might feel complete, but intuition nudges me to keep them in the drafts, to let them breathe. And later on, I come back to them and realize my intuition was right. They needed more depth.  And for some of my works, when I’m done, I’m done. I just feel it. I feel all of this, for me, has to do with intuition. I’m deeply intuitive, so it helps put things into perspective a lot. 

Also, it’s distinctive when I think of essays and fiction. For fiction, it’s about the characters developing into who they should be. I ask myself: are these characters authentic yet? Do they need to go on a break for now? What are they telling me that I cannot hear now? Does this story contain heart? How strong is the emotional integrity?

For essays, I make sure there is clarity regarding the accomplishment of the story. For example, I’m currently thinking about writing an essay because I want to give a certain thing I’m experiencing language— it deals with a metamorphosis of some sort, and I’m still going through this metamorphosis, so I cannot write it until I walk through the outcome and gain clarity. 

UE: What does writing mean to you? 

CN: Once, I missed an important lecture because I was writing a story. In my faculty, the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, the attendance register is usually strict. You always have to be present, or you will be penalized. But I did not care. My muse came and I had to obey. My writing is one of the many things that made me leave religion. Religion used to be so important to me, but my mantra remains this: if anyone or anything tries to stifle the work or break us apart, I let it bounce out of my life. Before I forsook my faith, whenever I listened to sermons, I would feel guilty when the pastor talked about idols. My writing would always come to my mind because the pastor said “anything that you give more time other than God.” Well, I’m glad I left that stifling box. Writing means many things to me. It is almost less about craft—because I’m not there yet—and more about it being a way of life. I wonder how bland, how artless my life would have been if writing was not my salvation. This art has offered me possibilities that no human can or will ever offer me. When I write characters, I empathize. When I’m telling stories, I’m sharing human solace. Writing has made me a better person and helped my interpersonal relationships. 

Ernest Hemingway writes, “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it.”

I tell myself often that if something happens to me, and by this, I mean, something that’ll make me stop writing (like an accident of some sort), let me die instead. 

UE: If you could only write about one thing, what would you write and why? 

CN: I would write stories that center on the Igbo identity. 

All my life, I have been robbed of my Igbo identity. When I turned eighteen, I made sure to reclaim it back. One of the most important things I did was clear my English name, Godwin (even though, somehow, it still appears in my official certificates—but I intend on clearing them off pretty soon). I grew up in an Igbo household, but somehow, because I went to a school that was soaked in English orthodoxy (one of those schools owned by white people in Lagos), a school that unconsciously demonized the Igbo identity, I had to shape-shift. I became so ashamed of my identity. I did not pay attention when my parents spoke Igbo to me. Fortunately, years later, I would reclaim this back, reading books and watching videos and making research about the Igbo culture and identity.

There is so much sophistication in the Igbo identity. The people, how they lead their lives, their resilience, their spirituality, their history. I’m particularly interested in the complexities of Igbo people. Igbo people are not monotonous. We are a collection of humans, and humans are not one thing. I want to tell stories of Igbo women, queer Igbo people, disabled Igbo people, poor Igbo people, rich Igbo people, struggling Igbo people, happy Igbo people. 

While there are so many stories in the world, and while I want to write about many things, if I have to write about only one thing, I would write about this one. 

UE: Whose works speak to you? Why? And how do they do that?

CN: Toni Morrison and James Baldwin’s works speak to me. There’s something about these 20th-century Black American writers that I find charming. It’s in the way they use language to rebel, to capture pain, freedom, black experiences, and beauty. I like to think that it also had to do with them being so terribly marginalized as black people, with racism at its peak. And, my brain also feels maybe it was because they were children or grandchildren of actual slaves in the 19th century, so this infiltrated so much in them. 

Toni Morrison’s Beloved interrogates the lethal legacy of slavery as it follows the life of a Black woman named Sethe, from her pre-Civil War days as a slave in Kentucky to her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time has stunning language and talks about the civil rights movement, which is rebellious and robust. 

An impressive book, for me, is rebellious in story, in language, in structure. I look out for these things. I love bold writers who break rules, shift boundaries, and blur worlds. 

As for poets, I think Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown, and Ivan Nuru’s works speak to me. Three of them queering poetry. Queer representation is important in poetry. Now, I’m randomly thinking of Ivan Nuru’s captivating lines:

“To the black boy in love with another

black boy, be patient with yourself, 

be patient with him, they don’t 

teach this kind of love.”

About the Authors:

Uchenna Emelife: 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).

Chinonso Nzeh is first Igbo. His works have been published in Evergreen Review, Agbowó, The Shallow Tales, Isele Magazine, Black Boy Review, Ibadan Arts, and elsewhere. His writing explores grief, gender, sexuality, queerness, familial relationships, class, politics, and Igbo ontology, amongst other things. He thinks of storytelling as a way to comprehend the world’s wonder. He is a prose reader at Beaver Magazine. 

Asides from writing, he’s a law student at the university of Lagos who is interested in researching and writing legal theories on gender and hopes that he can make an impact in dismantling the systemic homophobic and patriarchal laws that underpin the Nigerian legal system.