Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Alberta, Canada. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021), and a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems (Daraja Press, 2020). His poems and short fiction have been widely anthologised online and in print magazines, and he has interviewed over forty writers for Brittle Paper, Africa in Words, Read Alberta, and Prism International.
Double Wahala, Double Trouble was published by Griots Lounge, Canada, in November 2021, to critical acclaim. What inspired you to write this book?
Thanks, Nzube, I appreciate all the work you do for African literature. It’s inspiring to see a younger generation of Africans building and fostering platforms to promote African literary and cultural productions. Look at what you are doing, the same thing Ukamaka Olisakwe (Isele), Obi-Young Otosirieze (Open Country), Umar Abubakar Sidi and Richard Ali (Konya Shamsrumi), and Kenechi Uzor (Iskanchi) are doing for African writing, and many others. I feel heartened by the reception I’ve received from people who have read Double Wahala, Double Trouble. I’m glad that Bibi Ukonu and his team at Griots Lounge Publishing, Canada agreed to publish it. Double Wahala, Double Trouble is a montage of people’s experiences, stories, and lives, which I happened to crystallise as fiction, something more relatable for me, and I hope, for my readers. I wanted to explore the frequency of trouble in our world, how trouble haunts our being and relationships, the everydayness of trouble as it besets desire, love, intimacy, family, community, and even the nation. Trouble is very much at home with us, it seems. Yet beyond this exploration of trouble, I wanted to understand how people manage to deal with tragedy while attempting to make sense of their world.
How was the writing process like for you when writing this collection?
There were times the writing was fun; other times, it was a struggle, mainly because I had to juggle my academic research, noncreative writing, and other quotidian commitments. But then, you already know, no form of writing comes easy to the writer. You must do the backbreaking work while making sure to take care of yourself. Life happens; it doesn’t slow down just because you are recrafting a scene or revising a draft. In hindsight, I’m glad that I put the collection together. Double Wahala, Double Trouble is out there. What a relief!
How long did it take you to write it?
Many of the stories had lurked in my mind for more years than I can recollect. It must have taken me more than a decade from writing the first story to the last one, which I wrote, I think, sometime in 2017. I finished working on the manuscript in 2018, during the second year of my PhD program, then left the manuscript until sometime in 2019, when I felt I should revise it and send it to an editor. I didn’t look at the manuscript again until 2020 after I’d received significant feedback from my first editor, the amazing Kimmy Beach. When I felt right about the manuscript, I sent it to a few Nigerian publishers. However, while I was waiting for their response, Griots Lounge Publishing, Canada indicated an interest in the manuscript, and then we worked with two wonderful editors, Kara Toews and Tayo ‘Keyede, to get it ready for publication. So, the rest is history.
Do you have a favourite story in this collection?
I would say “Neighbours” because it seems, to me, the funniest story in the collection, aside from “Stupid.” “Neighbours” tells the story of a quirky artist and his enchantment with his neighbour’s handsome face. But it is also a story about male violence, deception, and trauma. That also happens to be my wife’s favourite story. I enjoyed writing it.
I am fascinated with history, and the melding of the old with the new. I believe quite strongly it makes for more sophisticated, vintage art. In a 2012 interview, you mentioned that writers cannot “escape history entirely” in their art. How has history played a part in the writing of Double Wahala, Double Trouble?
Yes, I remember that interview I had with Sokari Ekine, the founder of Black Looks. I was trying to understand the dimensions of history then, which I’m still doing right now. History not only as time past, an event or a series of events that happened in the past, but also time in the present—the haunting that a past event leaves in the present moment. I’m struck by the pivots of before and now, the dynamic between both. We live in history and cannot escape it. History is perhaps a door with multiple doors. It is never shut but remains open. Who can slam shut the door of history? Moreover, history is here even though it happened then. The present is a history unfolding, interleaving into the past while clearing its own history for the future. For the future citizens, their present is our time past, our present as historical. There is a continuum. A story refuses the fixity of the past. Every story that has been told is of the past, present, and future, so what stories we tell, the stories we share among ourselves, are shaped by our relationship to history and how we perceive the past and anticipate the future, be it in relation or opposition to the present. That is the connection I’ve been trying to figure out; this connection is evident in how I crafted some of my stories in Double Wahala, Double Trouble. The past of colonialism, figured now as neocolonialism, in the politics of Nigeria and the plunder of the oil-rich Niger Delta. The past of Biafra, restless, chafing the core of national harmony. Is the past of Nigeria any more radically different from the present Nigeria, especially if we consider the frequency of deaths and depredations fellow Nigerians live with? So, like you, I am interested in how history contours and informs the present society.
Many these days are criticising the genuineness of diasporic writing. While many feel that art is art, and just about anyone is entitled to create it, others feel that writers who are not living “at home” have no real right to write about the goings-on at home in Africa. You have been out of Nigeria for a considerably long time, and so you naturally fall into the latter purview. What do you have to say about this belief that African writers should write from home in order to be classified as a “real African writer” and one worthy to tell, more truthfully, the African story?
Please let’s get something clear here: I don’t think I have been out of Nigeria for a considerably long time. And even if I have, what does it matter and how does it impact my art? Who decides who a Nigerian or African is? What does it mean to be a “real” Nigerian or African writer? Such nativist sentiments. I have lived in at least 20 states in Nigeria, so why should anyone dare to question my Nigerianness or tell me not to write about Nigeria because I now live in Canada? What kind of warped thinking is that? I don’t want to waste precious time indulging in such frivolous conversations, very useless and impotent. Moreover, there are more productive conversations we should be having, such as, how do we get corporate bodies to invest more in literature? How do we get the government to grant annual funding to local publishers and libraries? How do we source for private endowments for literary prizes? I can’t abide censors, who work themselves up trying to decide which Nigerians should write about Nigeria. Let a million stories be told. Let people write from wherever they happen to be. The world is more prosperous for the flowering of stories!
You recently won the Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism organised by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG). You had been shortlisted in the literature category in 2007 as well as 2011. How did this victory make you feel, and what new opportunities has it opened for you so far?
I feel great about winning the prize for literary criticism in 2021. It’s nice to have a panel of distinguished jury recognise my writing for its merit. That’s a great feeling, which I don’t intend to take for granted. However, I’m still waiting for the new opportunities the prize supposedly confers on its winner. I suppose the Nigeria Prizes for Literature and Literary Criticism still have a bit of work to do in that respect. For instance, they could create more opportunities for Nigerians to engage the winners of these prizes in discussions, not just organise a book reading party in Lagos. What do they lose if they organised reading tours in some major cities in Nigeria, so people could get a chance to further appreciate literary culture? I hope the Advisory Committee finds a way to broaden its vision of the prizes.
You are nothing short of prolific. You have published a good number of books, most of which are children’s literature and poetry. Asides creative writing, you’re also an academic. I have discovered that many creative writers in Africa are either also teaching in university and colleges or PhDing on the continent and abroad. How has it been for you doing the two at the same time? Has being around the academia in any way strengthened your passion for creative writing?
I won’t say that it has been easy juggling both creative and critical writing. But that is the way it is. I’ve been fortunate, in any case. I have solid support from my family, friends, and community. So, this has made it much easier for me to negotiate the competing demands of creative and academic writing. If there is anything I have gained in academia, it is the discipline and the drive to complete any project I undertake. Besides that, academia has its own demands on a creative writer, especially if they must do mainly critical research.
You have been writing for a long time, longer than many of us are aware of. One of your earliest works is Dark Through the Delta, a poetry volume. What exactly spurred you to writing?
I can’t exactly say what spurred me to write. However, I began writing poetry or fiction because I was incensed by the perversity of the political class and the damage it had wreaked on Nigeria. Even as we speak, the mess is still there, caused by the political class. There was such terror and despair during the tyrannical Abacha regime of the 1990s, so I took solace in literature to avoid losing myself in the abyss of despair. I remember that was when I began writing poems, some of which would make it into my collection Dark through the Delta, published in 2004. I still have Dr. Isidore Diala to thank for helping to edit that collection for me.
Your writing seemed to start out as a form of protest writing based largely on the degradation of the environment. Over the years, it seemed to take up lighter, more colourful and playful tones; your works became more personal and introspective rather than political. What informed these choices?
As I mentioned earlier, I began writing poetry as a form of protest, which was the current at the time. Many of the poems published in Africa from the 1950s to 1990s were mainly of a protest voice because, generally, Africans have not had the luxury of enjoying for a long spell good governance. Instead, dictatorship has been the horror of our existence. I agree to some extent that my writing, especially poetry, has become more introspective. Is it due to aging? Distance? Maybe I’m beginning to further value my interconnection with other ways of being, knowing, and living. That said, we cannot escape the political in our writing. Every form of writing enacts a politics of sorts; writing exemplifies a politics against silence, voicelessness, against censure. Against tyranny. There’s a poem in the collection by Rayanne Haines, Tell the Birds your Body is not a Gun, that makes me think about how writing is voice; to write is to use your voice. To write is to assert your presence, to assert that, hey, see this world, this aspect of reality I want you to look closely at it. What you don’t find political about a story or poem is political to someone else. So, I don’t think I have yet found any writing that is not political.
You write across genres. What genre do you think would always be your forte?
It’s a struggle for me to decide whether it’s poetry, short fiction, or children’s writing that is easiest for me. Every genre comes with its own demands and negotiations. I’m still trying to figure out which genre I like working on the most. That is if I ever will.
What amazes you the most about Nigerian literature today? How is it evolving?
I am amazed by the sheer tenacity of younger Nigerian writers. Their passion is impressive, and they care little about prescriptions, censure, and who gets to write about Nigeria or write in a particular way. Moreover, many of them don’t have the time to fixate on nativism, this binary between Nigerians at home and Nigerians in the diaspora; they care nothing about futile conversations about who wears the toga of a real Nigerian writer. Instead, all they care about is their art, how to polish it, and get it out there for the reader’s pleasure.
How was growing up for you, and how does your Eastern Nigeria origin Influence the temper of your work?
I have good memories of growing up in Lagos and Owerri, and I appreciate all the support my dad and mom gave me, even amid periods of financial struggles and political unrest. As I said earlier, while in Nigeria, I had travelled a lot and lived in many cities and states. Those experiences have enriched my art and my perspective on life. I have become more accepting of failures, frailties, and foibles.
Having been a recipient of national and international awards and fellowships, what do you think of the place of contests, grants, awards, and fellowships in the creative writers’ journey? Are they ultimately harmful to the creative writers’ talent, or does the competition they breed serve as a fodder for growth?
I have been fortunate in those areas. Contests, awards, and fellowships are necessary, and these opportunities are not new. There has always been a long tradition of contests, awards, and fellowships in the arts and sciences. I find them to be a good thing because they are essential for the opportunities and access they give writers and artists. Mind you, these are still not enough, so the more of these we have in the literary community, the better writers are for it. And the society, too.
What is your definition of “diasporic literature” from your unique place as a Nigerian, and as a writer, too? Does it even exist for you?
Diasporic literature is another genre in world literature that includes all forms of literary writing from a place other than one’s home. Simply put, it is the literature produced from outside a writer’s natal home or country of origin. I think such works of literature exist insofar as they deal with a sense of home, homelessness, homegoing, homecoming, exile, migration, relocation, nomadism. At the heart of diasporic literature is the question of home, belonging, and identity, which, in some sense, writers tend to grapple with in their narratives.
What writer, living or dead, has been your greatest inspiration to write?
I don’t have any writer to name, but I have been inspired by every book published by an African author. That is the most significant influence I have had. African literature gave me the space to contemplate my own passion for writing. It was the foundation that shaped how I came into writing.
What would you say is the biggest bane facing African writers working to publish in the UK, Canada or America, which seem to be the best choices for many now?
I really don’t know. I wish I did.
What would you have likely been had you not been a writer?
A chef. I love cooking. Maybe a traveller, I love travelling around the world. I hope to travel more, though. But this pandemic is disfiguring our existence in ways no one can yet fully grasp.
What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
Black Aliveness by Kevin Quashie, Out of the Sun by Esi Edugyan, Blacks in Canada by Robin. W. Winks, Black Matters by Afua Cooper, Where Race Does Not Matter by Cecil Foster, and Strange Encounters by Sara Ahmed because they are relevant to the research that I’m undertaking under the supervision of Dr. Clara Joseph at the University of Calgary. During the holidays, while bingeing on Netflix, I finished reading DisPlace by Nduka Otiono, A Good Name by Yejide Kilanko, Teardrops on the Weser by Amatoritsero Ede, Lullaby by Leila Slimani, and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.