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 Michelle Iruobe ’s responses below. Also, read her short story, “The Returnee”.

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

Michelle Iruobe: Thank you! It still feels surreal!

I grew up an avid eavesdropper, listening to women gossip around my house, in overcrowded commercial buses and elsewhere, about what it meant to be a woman in Nigeria. On one occasion, I listened in on a conversation about a young woman who had been duped by her relatives. She’d returned from her stay abroad expecting to see a house built with money she’d been sending to them but soon discovered they hadn’t even bought a parcel of land because they thought she didn’t need it as a potentially married woman.

“The Returnee” was borne out of my frustration with that woman’s story and with the reality of women in Nigeria, even within their family circle. You could say I was compelled to write about it.

I wrote the story in 2019 so the details are quite hazy now but it remains one out of two stories of mine I would say was written smoothly, from beginning to end. I’m the sort to fuss over each sentence as I write but this one was different. Initially, the story ended after Part One but I quickly realized I was just getting started. I wanted more. More angst, more drama. A fitting resolution. So I wrote Part Two. And that was it. The tone, the point of view, and the story’s structure came naturally. Of course, there were some modifications here and there—with descriptions, with dialogue—but I do not have gory details to share about making a bloody mess of the first draft.  

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

MI: I know a story’s finished when I start to take out words, sentences, or even whole paragraphs only to put them in again. 

My fingers no longer stray to the backspace button after reading the first and last lines. It’s as close as possible to the vision in my head. I no longer get to the end when I read it aloud.

At this point, it’s either a very bad story or a very good one so I just decide on which one it is, and let it go. 

UE: What does writing mean to you?

MI: I think of writing as one of my functions. Shoes and clothes protect your skin and keep you warm. The blender turns fruits and vegetables to paste. I create characters, insert them into the worlds I also create, and clean up after their messes.  

When I have a new story idea, it feels like I’m a superhero and the main character chose me to save their world, to tell their story, because no one else has that power. There’s this sense of fulfillment that comes with beginning a story and seeing it end. That’s why I’m certain God enjoys being God.

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

MI: I’d write about Bonds. Ties. Connections. Forming it. Nurturing it. Severing it. I love stories that explore special relationships. Family bonds. Bonds between friends. Bonds to tradition and society. What weakens or strengthens them? Do the characters free themselves? Can the characters free themselves? 

It would constantly be a challenge for me and the possibilities are endless.

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

MI: In Octavia Butler’s notes to herself, she wrote, “Tell stories filled with facts. Let people touch and taste and know. Let people FEEL FEEL FEEL.” And that still speaks loudly to me. 

Buchi Emecheta introduced me to stories about women caught in our patriarchal society’s web. Her evocative writing sowed the seed of discord and years of the female experience, growing up listening to other women’s experiences watered that seed. She was the biggest inspiration for “The Returnee”.

There are exceptional storytellers and there is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a class of her own. She takes her time to unpeel her characters, her scenes, and her sentences. To carefully craft every detail. I constantly aspire to that level of perfection when I write. 

Nnedi Okorafor’s works exist as a reminder that there are no boundaries to what one can imagine. I admire the wicked humor in Remy Ngamije‘s prose. Lesley Nneka Arimah tells stories the way I want to tell mine–with cohesive plots and narrative structures that seem customized to suit them. When I read the stories from What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, I thought: “God, I know I’m not my parents’ favorite. Must you make it obvious I’m not yours too?”

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).

Michelle Enehiwealu Iruobe is a Nigerian writer. Her stories appear in Lolwe, Isele Magazine, Kalahari Review, Artmosterrific, and elsewhere. She is passionate about remarkable writing and visual arts.