The Short Story Interview: Chuma Nwokolo

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Interview by Jennifer Emelife

There’s hardly a Chuma Nwokolo story that wouldn’t leave its reader cracking up, even at serious situations. How have you been able to work so well with humour?

Some humour comes to me naturally. But it doesn’t always work well on paper, and it is not always spontaneous. I am the sort of person who arrives home after a visit and suddenly thinks up the killer repartee for a conversation that ended hours earlier. As mere man I can slap my head in frustration. As a writer I can pull out my manuscript and supercharge the hero’s dialogue. I think I should probably starve if I were to eke a living as a stand-up comedian. But the writer can appropriate the suite of the editor, if he wants, and that is where the timing and delivery of humour writing can be finessed. A sense of humour can be a valuable subversive trait in us humans. It is the ultimate rebellion: the refusal to be crushed by the natural weight of despair, to find a reason to laugh instead. I think a sense of humour that can make big, weighty issues more relatable is worth cultivating because it can trigger the positive frame of mind that opens up a reading mind to surprise, and the possibility of breaking dysfunctional cycles. Beyond that, I don’t so much care about humour as anesthetic or analgesic for that matter. Humour writing has its limits.  It is a fine line, but you want to be careful when you crack jokes, however black, at a tragic funeral (funerals can be sad without being tragic). Again you read stories about black characters modelled after real people and – as the body count in the genocide ratchets up – no matter the skills of the writer – you ask yourself if you want to be laughing about this.

I never thought of these limits, really. Now even though your stories depict everyday life, they mostly ridicule political systems and challenge religious beliefs. The Ram-selling Truth Angel of Zambaputu and Godforaday in your collection, How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Vol. I and II come to mind.  How effective has satire been for you in blending your passions for writing and activism?

My effectiveness as a satirist is probably a question best suited for my readers and critics. As an activist tool, we also may have to commission a research into the number of revolutionary actions triggered by my fiction! Yet, as a tool for the observer of society, satire can certainly be rewarding because it enforces a certain discipline of emotion. You are writing at a second remove from the provocations of your prose, especially any activist convictions lurking around your subconscious. So your prose can pay lip service to the decorum stipulated by polite society while you use the spaces in between the words to fillet the target of your fiction. Satire is of course a spectrum ranging from the savage to the nearly-there brushstrokes that leave victims and readers alike wondering. Your subject matter determines the lightness or heavy-handedness of the satirist. Sometimes the lightness of touch betrays a writerly sympathy for the characters who find themselves splayed by life on the banana skin of circumstances. Sometimes tales turn dark with more malevolent characters, and the savage satire drips blood.

You write in the English language, yet, it is impossible to miss the ‘Nigerianism’ or pidgin that largely constitute the language of your characters.  Do you not worry that this might limit your readership to largely Nigerians/Africans?

I would love for my work to be predominantly read by Nigerians and Africans, but more to the point, the writer’s responsibility is more to his characters, than to an imagined constituency of readers. If you are true to your characters, your true readers will eventually find – and appreciate – you from anywhere in the world, even if you write in an ‘alien’ language.  It is possible that some shades of meaning will escape an average reader alien to the culture he is reading about, but this is inevitable in all good literature. If what you gain from a first reading is valuable enough to keep you reading, although you are clearly not getting 100% of the referents, it means that the writing has depth, will repay study, and a second, possibly a third reading… None of this is an argument for obtuse writing, for deliberately obfuscatory writing designed to hide lack of real substance in the material. It is the writer’s duty to present his work as accessibly as possible, but not to beige his characters to satisfy the literary tastes of a potential audience.

In essence then, a writer’s task is to first of all, write and write well. The readers will always find a way of ‘catching up’. Let’s talk about the length of your short stories which usually varies from one short paragraph to few paragraphs to pages and pages. How do you determine a story’s length? Does it come subconsciously with the story dictating its length as you write or is it often a product of your editing?

Stories sometimes come to me in fragments. When I have laid out that fragment in a paragraph or two, it is usually done, and unless the final sentence tugs at a compelling storyline, I let it be. I think ‘padding’ is a cardinal literary crime that is as repugnant in letters as it is in the budgeting process of the National Assembly. If a fragment is an incompetent literary piece on its own, adding the weight of a novel on its frame will not necessarily cure it – might in fact, bury it. Having said that, sometimes a fragment does germinate and grow organically, so the idea is to let each story find its own identity. For instance, the flash, The Ship that Dropped Anchor, which is story no. 32 in How to Spell Naija (Vol 1) is done in one page, but it is a Kreektown tale inspired by my longest, most sustained fiction, The Extinction of Menai, which is currently in production.  But I suspect that most of my stories fall within the 2-3,500 word envelope. I think within that bracket I have managed to tell most of my tales.

The National Assembly… Stepping away from literature for a bit, can we briefly talk about your direct involvement with the politics of Nigeria? What are you trying to achieve with your initiative, The BribeCode?

In unjust societies, it is impossible to be neutral about politics. To carry on business ‘as normal’ in the face of blatant injustice is to support the immoral status quo. Sadly, it is equally easy to burnout: to subscribe to every passing hashtag and to dissipate energies on the scandal-du-jour in an environment with more scandals than oxygen in the room. After years of activism and broken promises by politicians who gain power on populist platforms only to transform into dictators, people will naturally become frustrated, even resigned. The thing then, is to be strategic in our interventions. To tackle the root of our most egregious problems, rather than the cloning incidents that spring from that root. That is the Bribecode strategy. By identifying endemic corruption as the root of our national dysfunction, the Bribecode Act is a proposed legislation which we are promoting for Nigeria which will change the punishment for serious corruption from the current risible levels which recently saw a man convicted for stealing billions of naira sentenced to a few months OR a N200, 000 fine, and who walked out of court a free man. We believe that this reformation will transform the Nigerian society from the root.

All the best with the Bribecode, Chuma. And the new book, The Extinction of Menai, totally excited to see it out! Can we have a sneak-peek into what it is about?

The Extinction of Menai is my most sustained work of fiction and it is now in the press. It is themed on culture and language extinction, which is pretty relevant today, considering that half of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today may be extinct by the end of the century, with languages going defunct weekly. Language and culture loss is mostly irreversible with the attendant loss of history and ethnic identity associated with the language. I got the inspiration for the novel from my time as writer-in-residence at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. In the galleries of the museum I saw artifacts of the Meroes, an ancient and illustrious African Nubian kingdom that had once colonized Ancient Egypt. What struck me at the time was the fact that the language of the Meroes had gone extinct, with the people, and although they left written artifacts, there were no means of interpreting them, there being no existing communities that claimed direct ancestry to this historic civilization. I also visited the sites of the ancient Meroes, which is located in modern Sudan for research. That was the root of the Menais, in my novel.

That must have been one fantastic experience. I remember in one of our conversations, I’d mentioned how tough it must be for the older generation to cope with this ‘internet-craze’ generation and her frivolities.  I remember you saying that as a boy,  you had to sit by the telephone and wait for a dialling tone before putting a call across, compared to how easy communication has been made now; which makes me wonder: how have these disparities in time affected your writing? When did it dawn on you that your beloved typewriter was dying a slow death? Have the changes affected the kind of stories you tell now and how you tell them?  Do you sometimes feel some sort of loss or disconnection?

I was actually already a practicing lawyer before the analogue telephone exchanges were phased out, and yes, the business and professional environment was completely transformed by the arrival of digital telephone exchanges for which you did not need a secretary to babysit a telephone for hours, waiting for a dialling tone! It will also be disingenuous for me to pretend any nostalgia for the manual typewriter. I still want to acquire a handsome example, and have it sit on a plinth in my study. Even make music on it sometimes. But do I miss creating on it? Certainly not. I got pretty good on it. I probably hit 70-80 wpm at my most proficient, but I never got to typing at the speed of thought. There were always the aggravating mechanicals of corrections, the paper change, the ribbon change, and then – most dauntingly – the herculean editing of a completed 400-page manuscript originally composed on typewriter.  So I feel no loss. Unless you are referring to my early electronic keyboards which suffered the punishing consequences of two little fingers trained to power heavy manual keys. Indeed I think that those of my generation: who started their careers in a relatively ‘manual’ environment populated by mimeograph and fax machines and were ‘young’ enough to transit completely to the 21st century are in a better position never to become blasé about our modern tools. I sometimes think back to the process of writing my first novel long-hand, the interminable writing and rewriting process, and then the mailing out to a typist, and realise it had much in common with the writing of Things Fall Apart, except that instead of travelling from Nigeria to the UK, my longhand manuscript travelled from Enugu to Lagos for typing!  I don’t believe that moving from longhand to composition on manual, electronic type-writers or computers have in any way affected the type of stories I write. In that sense, it has been substance over style. But in terms of the style, certainly there is no better time in history to be a writer. But then, that can be said for most fields of endeavour.

With the social media these days, one does not need to have written a book or be traditionally published before earning the writer tag. Users churn out poems and stories daily on their timelines which sometimes gain good recognitions from the ‘online’ public. What are your thoughts concerning this? As you’re quite active on these platforms.

I don’t know.

I like to think that the defining characteristic of the writer is not so much that he writes, but that he thinks. It is the quality, discipline and rigor of that thought that gives his writing stature. Now, what traditional publishing does, with the control of the printing press and the capital to promote ‘knighted’ writers, is to deliver audiences to their canon. Social media and the 21st century have somewhat democratized the process of delivering audiences to potential thinkers of stature. But it has also buried valuable voices in equal measure by the sheer cacophony of the medium.

In all that, it is hard to work up any sympathy for the old status quo. When we look closer at history, we find that the printing press triggered an aristocracy in literature, by requiring a certain capital investment to project the work of anointed writers to a readership of millions. The question is: what came before the printing press.

The answer is, the analogue social media: the wiki story circle in moonlight, where amateur storytellers post stories for the appreciation of the followers on their timelines. Feedbacks and Likes are instantaneous. Right after the performance, the story will be retweeted and shared all over the community.

What would you say to a young Chuma out there hoping to be a better writer?

 Visit Thomas Sankara. Write him.


Chuma Nwokolo is a Nigerian writer and lawyer. He is publisher of the literary magazine African Writing. Nwokolo’s first novels, The Extortionist (1993) and Dangerous Inheritance (1988), were published by Macmillan in the Pacesetter Novels. His other books include African Tales at Jailpoint, Diaries of a Dead African, One More Tale for the Road, Memories of Stone (poetry), The Ghost of Sani Abacha, How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Volumes I and II and The Final Testament of a Minor God (poetry). His short stories and poetry have been published in the London Review of Books, La Internazionale, AGNI,MTLS, Arzenal, and Sentinel, among places. He is a member of the Nigerian Bar Association, the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the Association of Nigerian Authors, and PEN. He was also writer-in-residence at The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Jennifer Chinenye Emelife was born in Northern Nigeria, Sokoto state. She studied Literature in English in Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. She lives in Lagos where she writes, when she isn’t teaching Literacy to kids. She is also rounding up a Post Graduate studies in Education. She believes that the African literary sphere suffers because no one covers its stories. Lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, she has written reportages and interviewed writers, publishers and other literary experts. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and in 2016, she was selected as one of the participants for Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop held in Accra, Ghana.

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