BY SYLVA NZE IFEDIGBO
Fiction writer and poet, Unoma Azuah is a busy lady. She has published 3 books: Sky High Flames, a novel; ‘The Length of Light, a short story collection; and an earlier poetry collection, Night Songs. Recently, she released her latest novel, Edible Bones, the story of a Nigerian immigrant’s experience in the US. She shares some of her thoughts on this book, her writing style, and her country with Sunday Art.
You’re a prolific writer, an author and a teacher. You’ve published a number of books as well as short stories. You are also a lecturer, the poetry Editor of Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, and you maintain a presence on Social Media. Recently, you were listed as one of the facilitators of the Sprouters On-line Writing Program, and you are also associated with the Lumina Foundation Writing Workshop. How do you balance your writing with your many other engagements?
I work around the clock, and that is only possible because most of my stories stay in my head for a while. In other words, I can carry stories around in my head, working them, polishing them for months, sometimes years until I am ready to write them down. So, that makes it easier for me to juggle many tasks. The juggling has become easier over time.
Do you consider Social Media as a facilitator of your writing process or a distraction?
Both – with the explosion of social networking, some writers feel that they have to stay current and germane by constantly tweeting, updating their Facebook and MySpace pages, and blogging. This has its advantages, but I engage in social networking less frequently than many because I find it overwhelming, sometimes. On the other hand, it is the quickest way to share information about your work to a large and immediate audience.
In a recent review of your new book, Edible Bones, by Yomi Ogunsanya published in Nigerians Talk, he wrote of a relationship between your book and Lonely Londoner, a 1956 novel by British Caribbean author Samuel Selvon, and their profound reflection on the migration issue. What’s your opinion on that?
Ogunsanya makes an interesting connection. He’s right on point with the parallel he draws between Edible Bones and Lonely Londoners. A good number of African immigrants in various parts of the world share the same experience, especially immigrants who have no special skills. They face the same hurdles – racism, ageism, sexism, etc.
You, like many other Nigerian professionals, are not currently residing in the country. I am wondering if your own migration experience is in anyway similar to Kaito’s. Were you subtly sharing some of your own experiences in the book?
To some extent, Kaito’s experience is like that of every immigrant. However, his is more challenging because he became an illegal immigrant. An illegal immigrant disappears in the system and practically ceases to exist. You can liken such an immigrant to a ghost because he or she is floating through the system, trying to live an impossible life. He or she cannot find a job, and when he does find a job, he is underpaid and exploited. This is one of the many challenges Kaito had to face.
The “checking out” syndrome got to its peak during the heydays of military dictatorship when activists and professionals were being hunted, and many citizens were running off to escape the harsh economic situation. Even today, the queues at the embassies are yet to abate, and the number of deportees remains high. How big a problem is this?
It is a huge and alarming problem. However, since completing Edible Bones, I’ve begun writing about a whole other migration endeavor that is near impossible. There are many immigrants who attempt the historic and difficult feat of traveling on foot, by bus and camel-back through North Africa to get to Europe. A friend of mine, Jerome Dukiya, who is a Catholic Priest, has a mission in North Africa that helps those migrators who get stranded before reaching the west.
It’s not uncommon to run out of money during the extensive journey because it is difficult to calculate exactly how much it will cost given the length of the trip and given the unforeseen. My priest friend shared incredibly harrowing stories with me about what a host of immigrants experience on this sojourn. Some die from starvation and dehydration; some are robbed and killed; some are raped and forced into perpetual bondage.
I could hardly believe the stories he shared. Still, I was somehow inspired to attempt the enormous hike and experience it for myself. I set out from Lagos to Mauritania, Nouadhibou, located next to Western Sahara. It’s about 700 sea miles from Spain. Half way through the Sahara desert, I believed I was going to die. I broke down; I couldn’t take the heat; I couldn’t eat the food.
At one point, a passenger bus I was riding broke down in the middle of the desert, and we had to spend the night sleeping on the desert sands. Unlike many immigrants, I could afford bus rides and lodging for a night or two in hotels along the way. I could also afford to buy drinks and special foods that I wanted, but for those with few resources, basic needs become luxuries. For as long as possible, they must ration every penny.
Abuda, another character in Edible Bones, is a quite successful person academically and career wise unlike Kaito. It seems ironical that someone with such an impressive resume’ struggles to scrape out a living in the US. Beyond fiction, are there Nigerians trapped in such situations?
Unfortunately, there are a number of Abudas in America, today. They give way to demise because of one issue or another. They might be unwilling or unable to adapt to fast changing trends, or they might be unwilling to comply with authority figures on the job, for example, because of a lack of trust.
In Edible Bones, I noticed you touched on the otherwise avoided topic of homosexuality and homophobia. The only writer that has hitherto ventured that way is Jude Dibia in his book Walking with Shadows. What informed your introducing this topic?
I’ve always explored the theme of sexuality in my writing, especially in my poems and non-fiction pieces. Edible Bones is actually inspired by a true story. The life of the major character loosely reflects the life of a Nigerian immigrant I met. He happened to be highly homophobic, but when he goes to jail and becomes a point of attention for bullies, a homosexual guy happens to be his savior.
That singular experience transformed him. I was amazed by his transformation and feel that it is a worthy sub-plot. I also wanted to use that vehicle to show that being overly judgmental never helps anyone in the long run, and unfair discrimination should not be encouraged.
What are your personal thoughts on the issue of gay rights which has become an issue of public debate in Nigeria following the recent passage of Anti-Gay rights laws by the Senate?
I feel that the Nigerian leadership is using the matter as a tool to distract Nigerians from genuinely pressing concerns like the lack of economic opportunity and infrastructure. The strong wave of fundamentalist Christianity sweeping over Nigeria fuels the distraction of this topic which should not be up for national debate because what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom should concern no one.
Edible Bones is fast paced and is written in very simply language. It comes across as though there was more effort in telling the story than in putting emphasis on style and language. Was this deliberate?
I don’t like side-tracking myself with anything extra when I am telling a story because I don’t want my readers to be distracted. The language of the book is sufficiently urbane, in my opinion, but I’ll leave it to the readers to decide.