Unoma Azuah is one of the important voices in Nigerian Literature, having earned acclaim through her work on poetry with Sentinel Quarterly Online Magazine as well as on her essays and research on sexuality issues in Nigeria. Unoma, who holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, has published a collection of short stories, Length of Light (2008), and two novels – Sky-High Flames (2004) and Edible Bones (2011). Unoma talks to us about a childhood spent questioning God about her father, her guilty fix of children’s fiction, and having her words ‘taken to the bank’.
Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?
It would be Ofunne, in my novel Sky-high Flames. We’d have a wonderful time talking about the short-sightedness of her parents and about her obnoxious mother-in-law.
What is the first thing you remember writing?
I remember scribbling a poem of some sorts called, “Questions for God,” at the age of six or seven. My mother couldn’t give me a
straight face answer as to where my father was. He had died in a car accident with some fellow soldiers.
Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?
It was surreal. The most recent I remember is being in Makurdi, Benue state for a reading. I had run of cash and had to dash into the nearest First Bank. I was in queue when I saw a man waltz by with a copy of Edible Bones. I found myself snickering. I had no idea why.
Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?
Both wouldn’t be a bad idea. LOL!!!
Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?
I’d like to have a sustained career of good books.
Best perk of being a writer?
Being treated like a star sometimes.
Worst thing about being a writer?
The isolation can be gruelling sometimes. Sometimes, it feels like a labour pang. For example, in some cases when I am supposed to be on a routine job or it can happen in the middle of my lectures, characters keep jeering at me to bring them alive.
I remember Ikhide’s review of Sky-high Flames. He came short of saying that the novel with all its technical and structural flaws is repulsive. However, I love Tade Ipadeola’s review of Edible Bones. I think he was most insightful and objective with the review.
One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?
Nothing really because it is something I enjoy doing. It’s been fulfilling so far.
Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?
Hard work, patience and tenacity.
Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling and punctuation.
I think I am pretty good in both, but I’d give myself 4/5 in punctuation.
What do you think your writing owes your readers?
Telling them stories that resonate with their reality as human beings, entertaining them and being honest in the telling
What word or phrase, if any, do you overuse in your writing?
LOL!!! I love the word “Breeze” and I know I over-use it.
What is your favourite quote from literature?
I actually have two favourite quotes from literature and they are both from C.S Lewis.
The first one goes: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
And the second: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?
My secondary school experience which I mostly used in Sky-high Flames.
If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian novel which book would it go to?
Nigeria has so many literary talents that it would be difficult to just pin point only one book. Several Nigerian novels come to mind, not just one.
What would your 20 year old self say if she were to meet the writer you’ve become?
Wow! It was worth it after all! Didn’t know we could make it this far.
What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?
My mother, Constance Azuah, nee Nsugbe and of course my secondary school teacher, Dr. Joe Ike Ogugua of the College of Education Ehamufu. He really pushed, nurtured and lifted me. I owe him my literary career. There is also Leslye Maria Huff who was my guardian during my university years in the US.
What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?
It was during one of the regular workshops in my MFA in Fiction classes. One of my classmates was so moved by my short story, “Season of Scorch,” that he said under his breath, “Classic!”
What is your guilty reading?
Sometimes I catch myself reading my childhood favourite stories like Achebe’s Chike and the River, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven.
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
Squeezing out time between my regular job and social life to create a conducive space to write. Often I stay up late at night to write. During the day sometimes, I am sleepy because I didn’t get enough sleep.
And the most pleasurable?
Seeing the book on bookshelves or in people’s hands.
What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?
Pacing. I also prefer being shown rather than being told.
How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?
Keep at it till I get it right.
Tell us your literary process – from conception to first draft.
I carry stories in my head for months, sometimes years. Then I make an outline and create a plot. I follow this plot from chapter to chapter till the book is done. Then I step back and read through again. There may be areas where I may need to flesh out or thin out depending on what is needed.
Foreign literary prizes: have they done more good or harm for African writing?
I am not sure I have an opinion about that. In general terms though, prizes can be affirming for writers.
Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?
Some contemporary African writers do not depict Africa fairly in their writing but different strokes for different folks. They may have ulterior motives to achieve something or to make a statement. Either way, honesty beats propaganda at the end of the day.
What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?
There are two books I have in mind: Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta then Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’d recommend the first because it captures the irony that is wrapped around some of our cultural expectations. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I admire because it expertly mines the human mind and delves into the recesses of the protagonist’s psyche. The author’s skill and message in that novel is extra-ordinary.
If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?
Nothing that comes to mind at the moment.
I am starting work on some sort of memoir/faction about the first 40 years of my life. It’s been such a challenging journey and I hope I can capture its essence well enough.