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 Jennifer Dickinson’’s responses below. Also, read her “Pink Flower”.

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

Jennifer Dickinson: My stories tend to come to me as “What if?” questions, and those “what ifs” lead to more and more. In the case of “Pink Flower,” I started wondering what if I’d never had any of my amazing female friends, only to meet a potential one at an older age? Would I be moved, excited, or would she drive me so crazy I wouldn’t even take the time to learn her name? I’m fascinated by  characters who have trouble communicating their emotions—it’s a theme that keeps coming up in my work—and my character Eloise was an opportunity for me to explore that idea. 

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

JD: It takes me at least four drafts of a short story to start feeling like a piece is getting CLOSE to being ready to submit. I have two friends who read everything I write and give me feedback. Once I’ve addressed their notes and killed all necessary darlings, I edit by reading the story aloud until it finally sounds finished.

UE: What does writing mean to you? 

JD: I grew up with a severe stutter, so I started writing to communicate. By the age of 7, I was clacking away on my IBM Selectric typewriter, giving my characters dramatic speeches, peppering them with all the words I had trouble saying. Writing for me has always felt like freedom. I’ve kept a journal since I was very small, and the pages are a shelter for me during the dark days in my life. I find hope when I write, and I have fun, too.

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

JD: I would always write about women. I’ve definitely written stories with male protagonists, but it’s the female journey and the female gaze that captivates and inspires me the most.

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

JD: At my alma mater Hollins University, I fell in love with fiction and discovered Jill McCorkle’s writing, who is also an alum. I love the humor in Jill’s work and how she uses humor to lighten the load of heavy subjects. I feel so complimented when someone tells me a story I wrote made them laugh. We need more laughter these days. This is also why I write middle grade fiction and read a lot of middle grade novels. Two of my favorites are El Deafo by Cece Bell and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. It could be because I started writing at such a young age, I don’t know, but I love thinking about the world through a child’s eyes, and writing from a child’s perspective. 

I lead poetry workshops and so I have the pleasure of reading a lot of poetry. Some of my heroes include Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Ellen Bass, Ada Limon, and Natasha Trethewey. All of these writers have in common that they can be vulnerable on the page, and they do not stray from exploring difficult topics and complicated emotions. I always want to be brave on the page, and they inspire me to do this. I’m also more conscious of language because of poetry. I study my sentences in revision and try to give them maximum impact. 

I’m a memoir book coach, so I love reading nonfiction, too. Abigail Thomas and Kiese Laymon are two of my favorites for their unflinching honesty in the specificity of their memories. They inspire me to really pull back the curtain and dig in deeply into my character’s emotions and backstories.

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).

Jennifer Dickinson is a graduate of Hollins University. Her writing has appeared in The Florida ReviewBeloit Fiction JournalMaudlin House, Isele Magazine, Mom Egg Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, she works as a writing teacher and book coach in Los Angeles. Connect with Jennifer at jenniferdickinsonwrites.com